The montage of clips from standup performances opens with comedian Billy Eichner walking onstage and grabbing the mic.
“Soooo, first day of school, last day of your lives,” he deadpans.
An awkward chuckle goes up from the crowd.
Next comes an exuberant riff from Wanda Sykes: “Some shit’s gonna go down, and I don’t think you’re gonna like it!” Laughter and applause.
“Here’s the thing,” says a grinning David Cross, “I am going to kill”—he pauses, an audience member hoots—“ALL of you.” Later he adds that today is “the day my massacre begins.”
None of the punchlines in the video, it turns out, were invented for laughs. They are all real threats that were made by school shooters who destroyed lives and devastated communities, from Parkland to Uvalde and beyond.
Titled “Just Joking,” the two-minute compilation released on Wednesday is the creation of Sandy Hook Promise, a gun-violence prevention group founded by parents and other survivors in the aftermath of the elementary school massacre 11 years ago in Newtown, Connecticut. It is the latest in a long-running campaign of PSAs developed by the group to raise awareness about threatening communications and other behavioral warning signs that precede school shootings. The second half of the video, set to an ominous swell of sound, reveals the tragedies connected to each punchline—highlighting that, just as with these unsuspecting nightclub audiences, people who had been aware of the shooters’ threats also thought they were joking.
“Take threats of violence seriously,” the video concludes.
For years, Sandy Hook Promise has helped build violence prevention efforts around the country through its “Know the Signs” programs, conducting trainings for school systems and communities that focus on warning signs and crisis intervention. The new PSA takes aim at a crucial obstacle known as the “bystander” problem. The history of school shootings is rife with ominous communications from perpetrators that were misconstrued or disregarded by peers, as I document in Trigger Points, my book about preventing mass shootings through behavioral threat assessment. Going back to the 1990s, there have been various shocking cases in which multiple students and other peers had indications of imminent violence but didn’t speak up or seek help.
Previous PSAs from Sandy Hook Promise have gone viral and won Emmys, spotlighting a range of red flags that signal opportunity for intervention. The group’s 2016 video titled “Evan,” which drew more than 155 million views in the first three weeks after it launched, smartly depicted how most people will overlook a troubled, isolated kid—in this case one who researches guns online, mimics shooting his teacher behind her back, and behaves in other worrisome ways. The idea for “Just Joking” came from the realization that the messaging needed to expand, says Nicole Hockley, cofounder and CEO of the group, whose son Dylan was among the first-graders killed in the Sandy Hook tragedy. “We felt it was time to shift from just talking about how to recognize a warning sign and also focus on, ‘What do you do once you recognize it?’”
Through its trainings and outreach, Sandy Hook Promise has gathered extensive feedback from youth about why they tend not to share their concerns. That can range from not understanding a behavior they witnessed or not knowing where to turn for help, to feeling fearful about possible repercussions for themselves or others if they choose to act. “Just Joking” drives home the imperative to speak out as it reveals the quotes from one school shooter after another.
Comedians revel in causing discomfort, of course, but it’s uniquely unsettling to watch them declare, “I’m going to shoot up an elementary school right now” and “I want to kill people.” The performers—who also include Margaret Cho, Jay Pharoah, Roy Wood Jr., Caitlin Reilly, Iliza Shlesinger, and Rachel Bloom—jumped at the chance when asked to do the video, Hockley told me. Some of them are parents, she noted, and all felt compelled by the mission to help reduce the nation’s epidemic of gun violence.
The comedians agreed to incorporate the shooter threats cold into their standup acts, said Hockley, with the filmmakers gathering the footage over months. The producers wanted to capture an authentic response from audiences, who subsequently learned the context from the performers about the weird-sounding lines they’d uttered onstage.
To date, 21 million people nationwide have participated in Sandy Hook Promise’s prevention programs, according to the group. In an era when school threats have risen sharply, Hockley feels the latest PSA could have a powerful impact. “For me, it’s especially that moment when Wanda Sykes says, ‘I want to go down as the best school shooter in history'”—a threat made by the Parkland perpetrator.
“That’s the moment it really hits home—that this is not funny,” Hockley says. “This is something that no one should ever say.”