us Sept. 11 marked the end of irony in America.
were written by hyperventilating pundits everywhere, who were
quick to declare a seismic shift in our cultural landscape and
the death of humor as we knew it.
it looked as if they were right. Following the terrorist attacks,
the late-night talk show hosts canceled their broadcasts, humor
publications like the Onion temporarily stopped publishing,
comedy clubs were virtually deserted, and even the notoriously
free-wheeling Internet became a joke-free zone. America was
in no mood to laugh and we wondered if we ever would be.
brief pause for grief and reflection, however, comedy slowly
began to make a comeback. By the time we had mobilized for war
in Afghanistan, America's humorists had begun to unleash their
own salvo of jokes, satirical barbs and Web-based parodies aimed
at lifting the country's spirits and cutting our new enemies
down to size.
As the nation
began the healing process, humor provided a much-needed salve,
if not a way to momentarily escape the grim news of the day.
Even New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani urged us to lighten up. "I'm
here to give you permission to laugh," he said at the opening
of a charity benefit in October. "If you don't, I'll have you
In the year
since, our need for comic relief has not diminished -- if anything,
demand for it has grown.
being marginalized as frivolous and irrelevant, comedy continues
to help us cope, and in many ways has served as a barometer
for the way the mood of the country has changed. The fact that
we can now poke fun at things like terror alerts, excessive
homeland security measures, President Bush's blunderings and
the hypocrisies of U.S. foreign policy underscores exactly how
far we have come. It may not signal a return to political mockery
as usual, but the sense of self-examination that has crept back
into humor may be one sign of a return to normalcy.
back began hesitantly, almost apologetically, with David Letterman's
return to the airwaves a week after the attacks. Forgoing his
usual comic monologue, Letterman instead offered an emotional
tribute to New York, setting a tone the rest of the late-night
comics followed as they sought to strike the right balance between
expressions of grief and the need for levity. "They said to
get back to work," said "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart. "There
were no jobs available for a man in the fetal position under
his desk crying, which I would have gladly taken. So I came
were tentative at first, steering clear of the tragedy itself.
President Bush was off-limits (as Jay Leno wryly observed, "We
can't do Bush jokes anymore; he's smart now.") Instead, the
most successful humor targeted America's response to the tragedy
and the absurdities of the emerging war on terrorism.
One of the
boldest stabs at humor came from the Onion, a satirical weekly
newspaper based in New York. Known for its biting social satire
and dead-on news spoofs, the Onion took direct aim at the fallout
from the attacks with a special report featuring such headlines
as "America Vows to Defeat Whoever We're at War With," "Hijackers
Surprised to Find Themselves in Hell," and "God Angrily Clarifies
'Don't Kill' Rule."
one of the best comic achievements of the post-Sept. 11 period,
the Onion provided cathartic laughs by tapping into raw emotion
and subtle ironies. "We really were just trying to capture the
sadness and anger everyone was feeling, and somehow it came
out as humor," said Robert Siegel, the Onion's editor in chief.
Show," Comedy Central's popular news-parody program, hit its
stride when it began poking fun at media coverage of "America's
new war." Dubbing its own coverage "America Freaks Out" and
"Operation Enduring Coverage," the show aptly captured the way
the media was preying on the nation's jittery mood, while lampooning
its slick marketing of the war on terrorism.
anthrax scare, for example, the "Daily Show" introduced its
own CNN-style news ticker, which scrolled through such breaking
news items as "White Powder Found on Donut in St. Louis," "91
Percent of Americans 'Want Mommy,' " and "Oh God Oh God Oh .
couldn't make fun of the events themselves, we could make fun
of some of the coverage of the events," said "Daily Show" correspondent
Mo Rocca. At first, that was challenging because "the mainstream
news coverage of the events was remarkably restrained and responsible.
But when Ashleigh Banfield started dyeing her hair and Geraldo
apparently started throwing himself into the cross fire, things
started moving for us again."
comedic punching bag, of course, turned out to be Osama bin
Laden, continuing a long-standing tradition of demonizing and
mocking our enemies during wartime. In the same way that Saddam
Hussein was parodied during the Gulf War and Hitler was ridiculed
during World War II, bin Laden became the new national laughingstock.
was that more apparent than on the Internet, where bin Laden
bashing became wild sport. Web humorists devised what seemed
like a million comic ways to capture and blow up the terrorist
mastermind in a series of games and cartoon animations that
succeeded brilliantly where the U.S. military was failing. Other
parodies drew upon references from American popular culture,
mocking bin Laden and the Taliban in joke ads for Jihad Joe
and Taliban Barbie dolls, as well as in rewrites of classic
songs titled "50 Ways to Kill bin Laden" and "Osama Got Run
Over by a Reindeer."
all the popularity of these jokes, humor researcher Paul Lewis
believes it is also important to note what we were not laughing
at in the aftermath of Sept. 11. He was struck by the almost
total absence of the kind of tasteless jokes that have accompanied
other tragedies, like the Challenger disaster. "There were not
that many degrees of separation between the victims of Sept.
11 and everyone else in American culture," said Lewis, a professor
of English at Boston College. "The same thing that accounts
for Bush's popularity accounts for the fact that we weren't
telling jokes about the 9/11 victims."
A year later,
we still don't joke about the tragedy itself. But other targets
that once were sacrosanct are no longer. President Bush is fair
game for humor again, albeit in a slightly different way. "The
Bush jokes before were Bush as the bumbler, Bush as inarticulate,
Bush as a fool. Now it's a new Bush joke, because this is still
an extraordinarily popular president," Rocca of the "Daily Show"
said. "Now he's Bush as the sometimes bumbler who's in bed with
big oil and with corporate corruption."
still has any comedic Teflon, it is wearing thin. Comedians
now joke about everything from the president taking a month
off to unwind (Letterman: "When does he wind?") to his motivations
for a possible war with Iraq (Leno, during a recent heat wave,
said he was "sweating like Saddam Hussein watching Bush's poll
are now also finding fodder in things like John Ashcroft's Operation
TIPS citizen-snoop program, Tom Ridge's color-coded alert system,
and even FBI and CIA intelligence failures.
when jingoism ruled and "America, love it or leave it" was the
watchword, voicing any such skepticism of government policy
would have been considered comedic suicide, if not a deportable
offense. Bill Maher, former host of the now-defunct "Politically
Incorrect," learned that the hard way after he was excoriated
for making some ill-timed remarks last September criticizing
certain past U.S. military actions as "cowardly."
if we are more self-critical and given to mockery these days,
that does not necessarily signal a full return to normal or
that the shift in mood has been universal. To be sure, there
are still many for whom the wounds of Sept. 11 remain too raw
for humor to serve as any sort of meaningful balm. And now,
amid the wave of corporate scandals that have undermined faith
in American business, the looming threat of more terrorist attacks,
and the possibility of war with Iraq, some of us still find
precious little to laugh about in the day's news.
of America's indomitable spirit has always been our ability
to laugh during difficult times. It is an act of defiance that
remains not only a fundamental part of how we cope, but who
about America changed, but you can't kill humor, any more than
you can kill a human emotion," Siegel of the Onion said. "You
can't kill sadness or fear or joy. Obviously people are going
to laugh and people will still be sarcastic and snide and ironic
and winking and insincere. That's a good thing. That's a sign
of the return to normalcy."
Kurtzman is a San Francisco writer and former Washington political
correspondent. He runs About.com's political humor Web site