“Do you know what you could buy with one million dollars in Ohio?” asked Stephen Colbert on the May 13, 2021, episode of The Late Show.
Sitting on the couch in my childhood home in Toledo, I groaned.
“Toledo!” said Colbert. “It’s a bit of a fixer-upper. The money comes from federal COVID-19 relief funds, but the drawing itself will be conducted by the Ohio Lottery, which is why in Ohio, vaccination cards are now also scratchers.” He tore theatrically at a mock card. “Syringe, syringe, damn, bleach!”
“That lottery,” said my mother when I told her about Colbert’s bit, “is ridiculous.”
“But you’re going to sign up for it, right?” I asked.
“Oh,” she laughed, “oh, yeah.”
On May 12, Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, announced a vaccination initiative ripe for instant fame. Called Vax-a-Million, the program offered anyone who had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine a chance to win one of five one-million-dollar payouts, if they were 18 or older, or one of five scholarships to an Ohio state college or university, if they were between 12 and 17. Anticipating controversy, the governor noted that people might say, “‘DeWine, you’re crazy! This million-dollar drawing idea of yours is a waste of money.’ But truly, the real waste [is] a life lost.”
By mid-June and amidst much praise, critique, humor, and even derision, Ohio held three of its five drawings. From the vantage point of behavioral economics, James Hamblin wrote that “vaccine lottery tickets are sad, but also perfect.” From the vantage point of informal participant observation, I suggest that many Ohioans actually find these tickets pretty funny.
“Anywhere I go,” Jack Pepper, an Ohio public health official, told the New York Times on May 27, “people are joking with me, ‘Hey, when I am going to win my million dollars?’” Since DeWine’s statement, Ohioans have cracked a million jokes about Vax-a-Million.
At a grocery store in Port Clinton, a cashier bantered with a shopper whose cart was stuffed: “You win Vax-a-Million or something?”
“Don’t worry,” a repairman said as he and a colleague sauntered into my house in Cleveland, “I signed up for the lottery.” “So dumb, man,” teased his colleague, “but if you win, you better buy me a boat.”
In Akron, a friend received this invitation to an indoor dinner: “Just checking—we’re all millionaires, right? Sorry, I know it’s silly!”
Even a non-vaccinated acquaintance enrolled in the lottery. Though he was aware that the state would verify his vaccination status and disqualify him, he told me that it was “funny to waste their time.”
As these representative examples show, many of the jokes are variants (as it were) on a theme: people from a seemingly wide cross-section of Ohio think Vax-a-Million is laughable, even as they sign up (as indeed I did) and hope to win. Why is this?
As DeWine predicted, political actors to his right and left have criticized the initiative on economic grounds. Republican state representative Jena Powell, for one, called the lottery a “bribe,” “gimmicky,” and “a gross misuse of taxpayer dollars.” Her Democratic colleague Jessica Miranda, who lamented that Ohio has been “riddled with extremist, anti-science ideologies [in] the state legislature [and] significant vaccine hesitancy in our communities,” said the program appeared to be a “stunt” in addition to a “misuse of taxpayer dollars.” Even Vax-a-Million’s advocates acknowledge that its impact has not been clear-cut. Notably, the initial 45 percent spike in Ohio’s vaccination rates may also have been influenced by the roughly simultaneous extension of vaccine eligibility to people 12 or older. As of writing in June, 43 percent of Ohioans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and 47 percent have received at least one dose, ranking Ohio twenty-seventh in the nation for full coverage and thirty-second for partial.
Economic critiques of Vax-a-Million are undeniably important. Nevertheless, I suggest that jokes about this initiative are not reducible to such critiques alone. To paraphrase James Carville: if it’s not the economy, stupid, then what makes Ohio’s vaccine lottery so funny to so many people? In part, Vax-a-Million is humorous because it is patently absurd, both generally and in Albert Camus’ sense of absurdity as the tension between the need for meaning and the world’s indifference to that need. As Trevor Noah riffed on The Daily Show, some people might say, “‘Isn’t helping to save humanity enough of an incentive to get vaccinated?’ To which I say, hellllll no! Have you seen humanity?” Beyond absurdity, though, lies what Ed Yong argued has become the banality of the pandemic as “a recurring series of traumatic events that have eroded the very social trust and connections that allow communities to recover.”
It is this banality around which Vax-a-Million humor circles. These jokes are not straightforward ones about trauma, but they are a related language, a potential entry point into more sobering conversations about whom to trust, how to trust, and what communal recovery—and the idea of community itself—might look like in a polarized “post”-pandemic swing state. Don’t worry, I signed up for the lottery. To this end, I see Vax-a-Million quips as arising not only in the tense space of absurdity but in the space between functionalist views of jokes as stabilizing potentially fraught social relations (e.g., Radcliffe-Brown 1940; Moran and Massam 1997; Buchanan and Keats 2011), and more critical takes on jokes as questioning or disrupting, often along imbalanced axes of power, the very function of society (e.g., Scott 1985; Kothoff 2006; Calhoun 2019). In a time when strangers and acquaintances alike have often tussled over face coverings and six feet of space, when welcoming someone into your home may be just as dangerous as it is kind, lottery humor engages trauma’s characteristic muddling of the already-complicated question of what constitutes adaptative or maladaptive social behavior.
Vax-a-Million jokes resonate because they easily lend themselves to either a defense or critique of the status quo—of what constitutes a reasonable, effective public health incentive in a pandemic—but do not deny the broader topsy-turviness of reason and efficacy, function and dysfunction. In doing so, this humor helps people across the political spectrum make their stances known to each other in a less binary and antagonistic language than that which mainstream political discourse might otherwise allow. Indeed, Vax-a-Million jokes tend neither to moralize nor to fix people as either for or against various measures—masking, social distancing, vaccinating.
Reducing antagonism, of course, does not equate to agreement; trauma means different things to different people. For some Ohioans, joking about Vax-a-Million signals how the virus has collectively shaken their lives and relationships. Just checking—we’re all millionaires, right? For others, the possibility that a virus could traumatize us is a joke unto itself. Funny to waste their time. Most recently, I went to a restaurant in Port Clinton that asked unvaccinated customers to wear masks while not eating. At a nearby table, a woman asked the waitress what mascarpone was, which she pronounced as mask-upon. An unmasked man passing by misheard her question, and, bewilderedly, put on his mask.
“Sorry!” the woman laughed. “Not you!” He chuckled and took off the covering.
“Yeah, I’m vaccinated!” he said. “Just waiting on DeWine to send me my check.”
“Oh, honey,” she waved her hand, as if to reassure him, “I’m not one of those people.”
This piece was written in June 2021.