America must regain its sense of humor

Max Sparber

During the interminable television – watching hours of this Sept. 11, sandwiched between repeated images of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center buckling and collapsing in on themselves, a firefighter said something that seemed especially poignant on a day where everything was poignant. He said, “I am just waiting for Sept. 12.” It seemed to me, at that moment, that we were all waiting for Sept. 12, and have been waiting for a year now.

We’re not there yet. Like all wounds, our national traumas knit themselves in ugly ways, and the clearest scabbing comes in the form of humor. There hasn’t been a national tragedy in my memory that wasn’t coupled with grizzly, awful humor, told at the expense of the most injured, often within hours of the injury itself. It seems like only a few hours after the space shuttle Challenger exploded, a half-dozen jokes about Natalie Wood’s drowning were modified to fit deceased school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who died in the shuttle’s explosion. Within a few weeks of the Columbine shootings, Web sites were ablaze with angry discussions concerning tasteless posts poking fun at the high school massacre. We reach reflexively, and often thoughtlessly, to the bleakest of jokes at the darkest of times; there’s just something natively human about gallows humor.

But not now. When the Twin Towers disappeared into a plume of smoke large enough to be visible by satellite, a cry erupted that irony was among the dead. Of course it wasn’t: We are a people too steeped in irony for anything but the briefest reprieves. The Onion, America’s premiere documenter of our country’s essentially ironic spirit, took a week off and then returned with a searing, raging issue that specifically addressed the events of Sept. 11. A sidebar headline from the issue encapsulated the whole horror of the day better than hours of televised news coverage and reams of newspapers could: “Massive Attack on Pentagon, Page 14 News.”

But humorists have trod lightly here. When Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” returned to the air, it displayed a baffled star. Jon Stewart, the show’s witty, self-depreciating host, opened with a tearful monologue and closed the show by holding up a puppy. As the young dog lapped at his face, Stewart offered a much-needed moment of genuine sweetness. A year later, the show has reclaimed every bit of its essential snarkiness, but for a program that held no taboos, “The Daily Show” handles Sept. 11 with unusual delicacy.

And they are right to – few Americans are ready for any dose of black humor concerning this subject. Political cartoonist Ted Rall took to task what he saw as a growing body of professional mourners in a cartoon titled “Terror Widows” (“They’re eerily calm. They smile and crack jokes and laugh out loud. They’re the scourge of the media.”) Rall’s cartoon was too critical, too soon; his March 6 cartoon was published at a time when American’s still rankled at any criticism of President Bush. But Rall had turned his attention to the wife of one of the victim’s of the terrorists – to the wife of Todd Beamer, one of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 who helped overpower the plane’s hijacker. Lisa Beamer deserved some critical attention for her bizarre attempts to copyright her husband’s final words: “Let’s roll.”

Rall quickly found that it was not the terror widows who were the scourge of the media, it was himself. A.R. Torres, whose husband perished in the World Trade Center, castigated Rall on, reprinting a letter she had sent the cartoonist that read, in part, “I have asked my dead husband to haunt you for the rest of your miserable days.”

Similarly, a Web site with the appropriate moniker,, has a page devoted to an excessively dark satire of the media’s fetishization of the tragedy. The site displays a series of faux trading cards dubbed “WTC Jumper Cards,” which show actual photographs of World Trade Center jumpers pinwheeling down the sides of the buildings. Vital stats on the cards include the jumpers’ names and the floor he or she leapt from. Of the six cards on the site, all but two have been replaced with placards reading, “card removed due to threatened legal action.” The site is clear in its satiric intention: “These are designed as trading cards,” writes the site’s author. “A symbol of capitalistic excess. Collected and traded for profit. Mass-produced scraps of print that are sold for ridiculous amounts of money. What a waste. This aspect of these images sum up how I feel as I have watched businesses and television networks, advertising agencies and mom and pop stores jump on the bandwagon to use this new patriotic wave for their own profit and recognition.” While the photos are real, the stats provided are fictional, not that it would matter. Few people would find this sort of satire funny at any time – at this time, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who finds it funny or is even willing to concede that there is a genuine satiric point buried in this gallows humor. And so lawsuits are threatened, and four of the six online cards are removed from the Web site.

We’re going to see more humor like this down the road, though, you can be sure of it. Sooner or later, we will pass through Sept. 11 and into Sept. 12, when the tragedy no longer seems like a recent wound, but instead like an old scar, a fact of history. Carol Burnett famously said that comedy is tragedy plus time, and, eventually, enough time will have passed that for some, the events of Sept. 11 seem a good resource for humor. And the jokes will come. They will be cruel, and they will seem thoughtless and heartless and inappropriate. And perhaps they will be all of this. But they will also signify a shift in national climate. It is this shift that must happen sooner or later. Eventually we must stop grieving and reclaim our senses of humor, bleak though they may be.