Cracking Wise: Finding Humor in America’s Most Notorious Street Drug

On March 12, 2002, Comedy Central aired the South Park episode “Jared Has Aides”. Holding true to South Park form, the episode oscillated between incisive hilarity and unwatchable stupidity, the most lasting take-away from the episode being the “22.3 Years Rule”. Feeling compelled to address their many AIDS-related jokes, series scripters Trey Parker and Matt Stone devised a rather ingenious and tautological justification for their choices, declaring, in the episode itself, that any tragedy becomes funny after 22.3 years. With the first reported case of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome coming to light in early 1980, they claimed to now be free to joke about this extremely sensitive international public health issue. While Parker and Stone’s rule is preposterously disingenuous, it does provide an interesting framework for looking at crack humor.

Crack, The Butt of Our Jokes (photo courtesy of

Over the last quarter century, cocaine has worked its way into the public consciousness, gaining no little acknowledgment as an ever-present part of the recreational lives of the rich and famous. Used and abused by bankers and athletes, old money and the nouveau riche, cocaine was (and is) alternately celebrated and condemned as the epitome of the decadence and glamour of the lives of America’s privileged classes. Crack, however, is a different story. Crack is dirty, a street drug reserved for the dregs of America’s underclass. After its introduction to urban America in the mid-1980s, crack quickly came to symbolize everything white, middle-class America strove not to be and it was treated as such. In fact, the drug was seen as so catastrophic to the country that one of the great moral panics of the 1980s and 1990s concerned “crack babies,” a group judged to be tainted as physically and mentally broken before they were even born. Fair or not, the “crack baby” label carries enormous stigma to this day because, as Eion Cannon explained in his wonderful post on this very blog, crack is seen as a vessel of tragedy, a terrible hindrance to engaging in work and family. Cocaine is the drug of the 1%, of short-lived, high-achieving flameouts. Crack is the drug of the 99%, a group deadened to the rest of society, incapable of love, laughter, or even basic human feeling.

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