HUMOR AND SEPTEMBER 11TH
Allen Klein, MA, CSP
THE DAY LAUGHTER RETURNED
When disaster strikes, shock sets in. When shock sets in, humor takes a back seat. When shock subsides, humor appears again.
Within a week of the 9/11 attacks a glimmer of humor appeared. According to one Washington Post reporter, the time it took between the first plane hitting the World Trade Center and the first attempt at Internet humor was 5 days, 2 hours, 8 minutes and 1 second. It consisted of anagrams (a word or phrase formed by rearranging the letters of another word or phrase) of the name Osama bin Laden: “Animals on a bed.” “I'm Dole bananas.” “I'm no bean salad.”
Not that funny, but still, it was humor, nevertheless. It was a reminder that life, and laughter, go on.
Even though it was hard to imagine anything funny ever again, comedians such as Jay Leno and David Letterman returned from their hiatus. But it was hardly humor as usual.
The most they could do was to remind their audience that their role in all of this was to help people escape. Comparing his work to providing cookies and lemonade to someone who comes home after a hard day at work, Leno said, “We’re not trying to make anybody forget. We’re just trying to take their mind off it for a minute.”
Realizing, too, the need for distraction, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani commanded the hit Broadway comedy “The Producers” to ring up its curtain again.
And at SheckyMagazine.com, a Web site for stand-up comics, comedians were urged to return to their profession of telling jokes: “Some comics have expressed an understandable reticence to ‘tell our little jokes’ at such a heavy time. We would advise these comics to regain perspective. 'Our little jokes' have the power to enable people to escape the horror.”
But lightening up a city, and a country, that has never seen or been that close to destruction before was not an easy task. As Entertainment Weekly noted “anyone who traffics in current-events comedy still doesn’t know where to draw the punchline.”
Thus, when Letterman returned to the air waves, he did it without his usual humorous opening monologue routine or his “Top Ten” list. Instead, he was joined on his first show by a tearful Dan Rather who, with Regis Philbin, recited, ”America the Beautiful.”
Political cartoonists too struggled to find the right tone for their satire. Mike Peters of the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News sketched a line of naked people at an airport metal detector. One person was saying, “I guess we have to give in to these security measures.” Even though it was funny, Peters decided to scrap it for a less critical cartoon in which an airline employee asks a passenger: “Do you have reservations?”
“Yes, but I'm still going to go,” the man replies.
Bring in the Clowns
In the Jewish religion, the basic mourning period is the seven days of Shiva. At the end of that you're required to attempt to re-engage with the world and your life as it was. . . .
and that's where we come in.
While the country was numb and uncertain of what would happen next, humor was dormant. But as we began to get a sense of who our enemy was, humor started to show more strength. Like someone who has had a stroke and must learn to use their body again, we fumbled around with humor until we discovered when to laugh and what to laugh at.
“There’s nothing funny and no humor to be found in the disaster itself,” satirist Harry Shearer said on National Public Radio’s program, “Fresh Air.” “But,” he continued, noting that this is a trivial comparison, “when one was making a great deal of fun of the circus that surrounded the O. J. Simpson trial, there was nothing funny about the crime that started the whole thing off. That was horrific and terrible, and nothing funny could be done about it. But as the thing wound on and we learned more about those characters and their very human foibles . . . there was a great deal of fun to be had with that.”
It took a while but stand-up comics, late-night comedians and political cartoonists finally found ways to both reflect bad news connected to 9/11 and, at the same time, deflect it with humor. What was safe to satirize was humor directed at our enemies—Osama bin Laden, the terrorists, and the Taliban and everything directly or indirectly related to them.
It was a humor that gave us power over our enemy. It was humor which lifted us from our despair. It was also humor that bonded us together against a common cause.
And...it was funny.
With something to aim their comic comments at, the late night talk show hosts were back in their stride. Conan O'Brien, for example, quipped, “It was reported today that Osama bin Laden has 50 brothers and sisters. Which absolutely shocked me because I had no idea he was Catholic.”
And, Saturday Night Live's “Weekend Update” announced: “Last night the Taliban offered to release eight Westerners if the US. promised not to attack. The State Department declined but thanked the Taliban for the offer, saying it really felt good to laugh again.”
Cartoonists too had a focus for their pen and their put-downs. Some of the first attempts of humor involved the mistreatment of women by the Taliban. In one cartoon, a group of Taliban are reading a note. In large letters, it says, “Give us Osama bin Laden or we'll send your women to college.”
Another editorial cartoon takes place in a human bomb class in an Afghanistan Terrorist School. The instructor, who has a bunch of dynamite strapped around his waist and a detonator in his hand, tell the class, “Pay attention, because I'm only going to do this once, OK?”
Every event related to the attacks of 9/11 brought with it new laughing matter. When Jesse Jackson. for example, wanted to negotiate with the Taliban, actor Darrell Hammond playing Jackson on Saturday Night Live explained:
“For the record, I did not contact the Taliban. They, in fact, contacted me. What happened was this. I had a hang-up on my machine. So I star-69'd. And they said, 'Hello?' And I said, 'Who's this?' And they said, 'Who's this?' And I said, 'You called me.' Then they said, 'No, you called us. 'And I said, 'I star-69'd you.'"
When stricter security at airports was the new news of the day, Letterman told his audience, “Security here in New York City is still very tight. Hookers in Time Square now are demanding two forms of fake ID.”
The New Yorker, which was denuded of cartoons immediately after 9/11, ran a piece two months later comparing what was funny when this country found itself at war in December 1941, and what we were laughing at now. Two of the current cartoons focused on security issues.
One showed a woman going through airport security holding her pet cat in a carrying case. A security guard informs her, “We'll need to declaw the cat.”
The other cartoon depicts a customer getting the going over with a metal-detecting wand outside a restaurant. He tells someone waiting behind him, “The food is just so-so, but the security is fantastic.”
After one airline passenger tried to ignite the explosives in his shoes, cartoonist Mike Peters helped us laugh at new heightened security pat downs and clothing searches. A couple in their underwear are putting their clothes back on. The husband is saying to his wife: “I don't mind these strip-searches but I hate when they stick dollars in my underwear.”
When the anthrax scare came along, it too brought with it more grist for the humor mill. Jay Leno quipped, “The FBI is urging all Americans to beware of any letters or packages that have badly misspelled words. Man, this is going to be terrible news for the rap industry.”
One cartoonist used humor to cleverly tackled both the anthrax scare and the increasing job cuts. A man sitting at his desk cautiously opening a letter quips, “Whew! It's only a layoff notice.”
And finally, folks on the Internet got real creative with elements related to 9/11. One photo showed a woman lying down on the conveyor belt of the luggage scanner. The headline reads: “Enhanced Airport Screening to Include Mammogram.”
As humor returned to the airwaves, the wire services, and the Web, the rules for poking funny at our leaders began to ease. Here, for example, was a letter that circulated on the Internet shortly after the attacks:
From: The White House
To: Albert Gore
We found some more votes. You won. When do you want to take over?
George W. Bush
Bring in the Other Clowns
The art of the clown is more profound than we think…. It is the comic mirror of tragedy and the tragic mirror of comedy.
Our comedians and cartoonists are not the only ones who help us heal with laughter. There is a whole other, often under-recognized, group of humor healers. These are the caring clowns around the country who visit hospitals and nursing homes bringing comfort and comic relief to both the sick and the dying. They also play an important role during disasters.
John Kapherer, from New Jersey, who is known in the world of clowning as “Clem T”, is one of those clowns. Three days after the attack he put on his costume and headed for Ground Zero. He reports:
“I'm not allowed to get anywhere near the World Trade Center, but I am entertaining the Search and Rescue teams at night. . . . Most of what I've been doing is just being there for the people looking for missing friends, talking with children and entertaining on a limited basis for the people of NYC. This is not a time for jokes and laughter but a time for caring and support…. I am doing whatever I can do to help out, even if it is from afar.
On TV, the mayor said they don't want unnecessary people being in NYC. I respect him, but I am going by what the New York Police Department, Fire Department and the searchers have been telling me. 'You're a spark of light to us.'….
Security has increased over the past two days and I am limited in my activities and places that I can go—the morgue, Canal Street, and the hospitals all have people who need love, hugs, and understanding….
I hold hands and hug people. It's easy to hug a clown. I spend a lot of time talking to the police, well listening. I give out hug coupons. Sometimes the police see me and ask for more hug coupons so they can give them out.
When they see me, they start laughing. A lot of the police want their pictures taken with me. And they want the senior officer to hug a clown and have their picture taken…..
I met Mayor Giuliani and the governor and all they could say was 'Thanks for being here, you are what we need right now.' Clowns do make a difference and I have the memories to prove it.
The comic spirit masquerades in all things we say and do.
We are each a clown and do not need to put on a white face.
Sometimes, when we least expect it, the comic spirit arises, from seemingly out of nowhere, to remind us that there just might be another way of looking at a troubled world.
Alongside the story about Clem T in the Hospital Clown Newsletter, published by caring clown Shobi Dobi, there was an anonymously written piece about the aftermath of the World Trade Center. It is a wonderful reminder that the comic spirit lives even in the midst of tragedy. Here is part of that story:
I've been volunteering at the Armory. That is where the families with missing people go…. I was sorting through the donations people were sending in. One woman sent a mink coat. Someone sent dirty sneakers, T-shirts with armpit stains, and, let's see what else—oh, yes, half a tube of toothpaste! Everyone in my part of the Armory was laughing hysterically when they saw these items. It was kind of nice to have something to laugh at….
Yesterday we went back to work—tried to be normal. I was walking home and had stopped at a light near my apartment. I noticed the guy standing next to me was wearing a New York City fire department T-shirt. I thanked him and asked him how he was holding up. He started sobbing and hugged me.
He was on his way to my local fire station. They had lost 14 men. He'd been working nonstop since the attack. He said it was like hell—body parts everywhere. He told me he felt sick every time he had to go in—that the only thing that kept him going was the people cheering the rescue workers on when they walked out of Ground Zero. He said, 'please don't stop doing that—don't stop cheering us. If you do, I don't know what we'll do.'
I went to the firehouse with him and lit a candle at the vigil. As I was walking back to my house, I kept wondering if NYC would ever be the same again.
Just then, a drag queen came roller blading by dressed as Wonder Woman. As he handed out donuts to people waiting on line, I started to laugh. I realized that somethings about New York City will never change.”
Nudging Toward Normalcy
I think the comedian's greatest service in the upcoming months can be to remind people of the past tragedy—but at the same time nudge them toward normalcy with laughter.
The comedians, the cartoonists, and the caring clowns comforted a nation under stress. They provided a distraction from the seemingly endless replay of the horrors of September 11th.
The laughter they helped produce bonded us together in defiance. One doctored photograph, for example, of a supposedly new design for the World Trade Center showed not two towers, but five. Each looked like a finger, the middle one sticking up higher than the rest.
Back to normal? Sort of.