COLUMN: The good news, the bad news

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. A shorter version of this piece aired on the Saturday, Jan. 15 edition of “Between You and Me” on 91.7 KAXE

The good news, the bad news
By Aaron J. Brown

It is distinctly American, perhaps distinctly human to break news into the categories of good and bad. Some news hails as definitively good, such as the victory of your local whateverball club or getting a raise. Other news remains most assuredly bad, including death, dismemberment and unplanned car repairs. Anything else, however (ie: most news), is usually presented this way: “Well, the good news is ‘x,’ but the bad news is ‘y,’” as though we can’t handle the nuances of reality.

Of course, that’s true. We can’t handle nuance. Or reality for that matter. Human nature tells us that these pants look OK on us, even after eating all that food over the course of several years. And so we tell the same lie to Fatty McFat over there, too. “You carry it well, Bob. You don’t look a pound over 195.”

There’s a whole host of “good news/bad news” jokes floating around on your finer after-dinner speech preparation websites. The best site I found is called TV Tropes, which covers all manner of joke and writing constructs. Many of the good news/bad news jokes described are based on the idea of a doctor delivering news to a patient. Some of these jokes are so old that they transcend proper attribution. For instance:

Doctor: I have some good news and I have some bad news.

Patient:  What’s the good news?

Doctor:  The good news is that the tests you took showed that you have 24 hours to live.

Patient: That’s the good news?  What’s the bad news?

Doctor: The bad news is that I forgot to call you yesterday!

Now, as a joke, this is OK. I would have worked harder to find its origin had I not run across several dozen Sunday sermons by pastors who also stole the joke without attribution. Really, it’s the idea of the joke that matters more than its humor. “I just got you to think while politely laughing at my mediocre joke.” That’s the wheelhouse of a pastor, and also a newspaper columnist.

Actually, TV Tropes section on this breaks it down even further. There’s “Not so good news after all,” “That was the good news,” “Bad news, irrelevant news,” “There is no good news,” “Reading between the good news” (in which the doctor’s line becomes “The good news is they’re naming a disease after you!”) and “Both news are the same.”

The site warns that if the situation in the joke gets worse, “it quickly becomes “Bad News, Worse News,” an entirely different trope. You can pull back from that brink, however, if you end with “So what’s the bad news?”

We live in grey times. Not dark. Not bright. Grey.

There is good news, like astounding technological progress and medical innovation. And there is bad news, like violence, continuing wars and burgeoning public and private debt. Our polarized politics and the vitriol of extremists make it hard to explain a complicated reality with an unclear path forward. In truth, what we might need are more good news, bad news jokes.

DOCTOR: Well, I’ve got good news and bad news.

PATIENT: What’s the good news?

DOCTOR: The good news is that you are at a healthy weight for your age.

PATIENT: That’s great! What’s the bad news?

DOCTOR: The bad news is that I was reading a veterinary manual about horses.

PATIENT: Neigh, that is bad news.

Well, it’s a work in progress. I’ll have plenty of time to get this right when the government falls … to the sounds of laughter, that is.

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer and community college instructor. Read more at his blog or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”


  1. Good news is we’ve recently lived like drunken sailors on leave in Duluth……. Bad news is our hangover starts today. Day of reckoning is here for our area & state on failed policies that chased jobs out of the Range and State. There’s a good news bad news for you. Here’s a clear path for you:do what other states are doing to attract businesses, compete and fight for jobs, not only state to state but world wide. Think BIG, think globally and act on it locally. Lets stop the “we’re victims” BS. We have many things to offer up here, lets fight for our area. I’m sick of this “we can’t- some one please help us” crap. We’re Rangers, sons and daughters of immigrants that said yes we can. What I hear from our youngsters up here today is “no we can’t”. I’m tired of that. An Old Ranger

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