The Chronicle Review

What's So Funny About 9/11?

Among the edgiest forays into post-9/11 satire were those of The New Yorker, which caricatured Michelle and Barack Obama fist-bumping in a pre-election cover portrait titled "The Politics of Fear," and The Onion, in its issue of September 27, 2001.
February 12, 2012

It is difficult to think of any word in the English language trickier to define than "humor." Theories "explaining" the nature of humor seem to be innumerable, but none seems to come close to capturing this slippery subject. Most seem to regard humor as an external "something," a discrete phenomenon that can be trapped, caged, and prodded like a rare animal, rather than an intervening variable.

Contemporary humor theorists consider the subject from a variety of angles and from the perspectives of various disciplines, including biology, philosophy, psychology, cultural studies, folklore, and linguistics. Most scholars give a warm, good-natured cast to the telling of jokes, mentioning neither nastiness nor aggression. Many make the case, in a Kantian vein, that a successful joke brings us to the recognition of our common humanity. The philosopher Ted Cohen, of the University of Chicago, makes this case in his 1999 book, Jokes (University of Chicago Press):

"I need reassurance that this something inside me, this something that is tickled by a joke, is indeed something that constitutes an element of my humanity. I discover something of what it is to be a human being by finding this thing in me, and then having it echoed in you, another human being."

Many also argue that to see something as funny, we need to separate ourselves from it. This issue of distance is among a number tackled by A Decade of Dark Humor: How Comedy, Irony and Satire Shaped Post 9/11 America, edited by Ted Gournelos and Viveca S. Greene (University Press of Mississippi, 2011), an anthology of essays examining the rhetorical methods and aesthetic techniques of humor in relation to the World Trade Center attacks and their aftermath. Subjects covered include news parodies (The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Onion), television roundtable shows (Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher), comic strips (The Boondocks, Jeff Danziger's editorial cartoons, South Park), graphic novels (Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers), and documentaries (Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11). Credit is due to the book's editors and contributors for tackling such an emotionally fraught subject; most of the essays carry off their difficult task with aplomb.

The most persuasive chapters are those in which the subject is thoroughly grounded in specific political or journalistic contexts, as is the case with the Marshall University political scientist Jamie Warner's essay on The Onion; the American-studies scholar David Holloway, of the University of Derby, in England, on "Republican Decline and Culture Wars in 9/11 Humor," and the thoughtful analysis by the English professor Michael Truscello, of Mount Royal University, in Calgary, Alberta, on "Humoring 9/11 Skepticism." These authors carefully consider how humor and irony articulate tensions in post-9/11 America, investigating the relationship between "nonserious forms of communication" and political instability.

Broadly, humor here is regarded as a form of institutionalized opposition, a way of charting alternative paradigms for dealing with trauma in the public sphere. For example, in her essay on South Park and Stephen Colbert, the Hampshire College cultural-studies scholar Viveca S. Greene quotes Colbert praising President George W. Bush's refusal to bow to reason:

"It is my privilege to celebrate this president, 'cause we're not so different, he and I. We both get it ... We're not members of the factinista, he and I. We go straight from the gut. Right, sir? That's where the truth lies: right down here in the gut. Do you know that you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. Now, I know some of you are going to say, 'I did look it up, and that's not true.' That's 'cause you looked it up in a book. Next time look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that's how our nervous system works. Every night on my show, The Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, okay? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument."

Comedy, irony, and satire, however, are different modes; they do not always overlap, nor do they always fall under the aegis of "dark humor," as the book's title suggests, or even of "non­serious forms of communication." Irony can be (and often is) deadly serious; satire can be bitter and pitch black. Spiegelman's In The Shadow of No Towers, discussed in an essay by the Rollins College cultural-studies scholar Ted Gournelos, is a good example. The tone is serious throughout, and Spiegelman uses a combination of drawing styles and graphic techniques—painted images, computer scans, scrawled sketches, old newspaper comic strips—to downplay the sensationalism sometimes associated with the comic-book format. It is difficult to understand where In the Shadow of No Towers fits in a discussion of texts dealing with dark humor; the fact that it has a cartoon format is not enough, surely, to make it, in any general sense, "humorous."

A later section of the book deals with post-9/11 politics, a phenomenon signified, according to the book's editors, by "the increased importance of negotiated media, image and discourse through a rapid and complex interaction between politicians, media sources, texts, and audiences, wherein political action and activism are quantitatively and qualitatively different from simpler concepts of performance and consumption." Yet the media manipulations described here are not, surely, a post-9/11 phenomenon, or even an especially modern one. Photoshop and YouTube may be recent inventions, but popular undermining, distorting, and repurposing of mainstream media go back to the medieval carnival, which, as Mikhail Bakhtin explains in Rabelais and His World, provided opportunities for popular, demo­cratic subversions of official discourse.

Beyond confirming the tired truism that people usually manage to keep their sense of humor even in the most difficult of circumstances, the persistence of "disaster jokes" ("Bin Laden Travel: The Fastest Way to the Heart of Manhattan") surely invites further and deeper reflection about what we mean when we talk about "humor." A number of philosophers and psychologists have suggested that humor is not tied to local, current, political issues, as the authors in A Decade of Dark Humor suggest, but to timeless universals, and that this absence of a philosophical dimension in favor of social and political analysis is a problem with a number of recent discussions of humor, including many of those in this book.

For example, an essay by the University of Amsterdam sociologist Giselinde Kuipers, called "'Where Was King Kong When We Needed Him?': Public Discourse, Digital Dis­aster Jokes, and the Functions of Laughter after 9/11," suggests that the purposefunction of laughter might be different after 9/11 than it was before, which raises the question: different for whom? For most people, after all, the incident was something that happened to a number of strangers in a distant place.

Then there is the question of other, earlier traumas that were considered equally catastrophic in their day. Why would laughter be "different after 9/11" and not different after, for example, the Holocaust, the Blitz, Pearl Harbor, or Hiroshima? Does the quality of laughter relate to the number of casualties? Statistically, about the same number of people are killed on the roads every month in the United States as were killed on 9/11, yet no one argues that we should all be "traumatized" every month by this continuing carnage.

"The ability to play with something is the highest proof of one's grasp of the matter," Kuipers concludes—a comment that overlooks the role of humor as a form of denial, a role familiar to anyone who's taken part in an awkward family gathering or any situation in which humor is used as a way of avoiding uncomfortable home truths. For example, joking about how much dad's had to drink at Christmas dinner can be a way of avoiding the serious issue of alcoholism, or evading the question of why he might feel the need to drink so much.

Moreover, to suggest that "playing with something" is always a sign of sophistication is to ignore historical context. The truth is, it has not always been acceptable to joke about things in the company of others. It is only in the last hundred years or less that public laughter has been widely acceptable in polite society. Indeed, throughout many periods in Western culture, laughter was thought to be rude at best, sinful at worst.

Furthermore, jokes about "foreigners" of various stripes have always proliferated in times of public tension (no doubt the Celts told Viking-invasion jokes). Jokes that appear to be at the expense of ethnic or racial groups should not necessarily be taken at face value. They might, for example, be jokes about darkly comic versions of ourselves, seen through the distorting lens of a funhouse mirror. The folklorists Alan Lomax and Alan Dundes collected examples from "joke cycles" that emerged in the wake of various national disasters and tragedies. Lomax collected anti-Japanese jokes told after Pearl Harbor, and Dundes wrote a scholarly article recounting and analyzing the "Auschwitz jokes" told in West Germany after the Holocaust. An example:

"Q: What's the difference between the crucifixion and circumcision?

"A: In a crucifixion, you can throw away the whole Jew."

Dundes suggests that the Germans who told such jokes were attempting to appease the pain, shame, and guilt they felt about the Holocaust by reminding one another that anti-Semitism has an ancient history and has been a worldwide (rather than exclusively German) phenomenon.

Some of the best insights about 9/11 jokes were made not long after the incident, in 2002, when Bill Ellis, a folklorist at Pennsylvania State University, published an essay in the online journal New Directions in Folklore titled "Making a Big Apple Crumble: The Role of Humor in Constructing a Global Response to Disaster." The essay, which has yet to be reproduced in print, would surely have made a fitting contribution to this collection.

For example, Ellis made a series of predictions about "WTC jokes":

  • That they would appear in cycles, after a period of latency.
  • That they would reference the dominant visual images of the tragedy (think of the Bin Laden Travel joke).
  • That they would recycle elements from previous cycles.
  • And that the dominant mode of distributing WTC jokes would be e-mail.

All these predictions have proved true. Ellis observed that most of these jokes would travel online, because "the distancing effect of the Inter­net likewise enables persons to propose and circulate jokes anonymously, and with little risk of social retaliation. Thus I reasoned that computer mediation would encourage disaster lore and in fact be its primary mode of circulation."

For the French philosopher Henri Bergson, the social significance of human laughter is always inextricably associated with its aggressive intent. Nietzsche claimed that "man alone suffers so excruciatingly in the world that he was compelled to invent laughter." Very few of the essays in this book consider that jokes may be an affirmation of pain rather than an alleviation—or, more appositely, perhaps, a form of confessional, a kind of shriving. This is the opinion of the folklorist Gershon Legman, who makes his point with characteristic heated eloquence in his book No Laughing Matter:

"The cycle of telling and listening, listening and telling must be endlessly and compulsively repeated for a lifetime, the teller visibly taking the least pleasure of all in the humor at which he struggles so hard, and in which, at the end, he stands like the hungry child he is, darkly famished at their feasting while the audience laughs."

Mikita Brottman is a professor of humanistic studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Her books include Funny Peculiar: Gershon Legman and the Psychopathology of Humor (Analytic Press, 2004) and Car Crash Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).