WHEN WILL it be again okay to laugh? A well-worn adage has been making the rounds lately: "Tragedy plus Time equals Comedy." But whether this formula can be applied to recent events remains to be seen. "I donít think things will ever return to normal," says Colton. "I find it very hard to imagine that in 50 years weíll be going to the Broadway musical about the World Trade Center collapse."
Despite his publicationís satirical tone, Colton believes the type of humor Americans crave right now is escapist, absurdist. Indeed, frivolous, oddball movies like Zoolander and Legally Blonde have been doing a roaring trade. And yet the most popular show in New York right now is Mel Brooksís The Producers, a Broadway musical spoofing the Nazis. Steve Lippman, a reporter at New Yorkís Jewish Week, believes this is no accident. "This is a comedy about the Holocaust," he says. "Itís not only making people laugh, itís providing them with a morale boost. If we can laugh at that terrible tragedy, we can laugh at the hell weíre going through now. It says we will outlast this. We will outlast these mamzers who did this to us."
"Weíre a hardy people," says John Aboud. "Itís part of our nature to laugh." True enough. But what are we ó and arenít we ó supposed to laugh at? The World Trade Center carnage has already distinguished itself as one of the few disasters that havenít provoked an immediate slew of sick jokes. (This may be due in part to the fact that many disaster jokes have traditionally originated on Wall Street, but it also points to an increased sensitivity among the joke-tellers.) "What Iíve been telling writers is that what happened is so unspeakably awful that itís hard to be funny about it at its core," says Colton. "But at the periphery there are ways to be funny. Weíll chip away at the periphery without touching the center."
Colton may be right, but his advice leaves unanswered the question of precisely how close Americaís humorists can get to the core of the atrocity without hitting a raw nerve. And the bottom line is, the only way theyíll get the answer is through trial and error. "My reputation is that irreverence is my only sacred cow," says satirist Krassner. "But the elements I want now are compassion as well as humor. If I do that and still the audience doesnít laugh, then Iíll have to rethink why something struck me as funny and not them. What did I fail to communicate?"
"I donít know what the policy is yet," says Lizz Winstead, a co-founder of The Daily Show who now performs stand-up comedy in Los Angeles. "Iím not the type to do Osama-what-an-asshole jokes ó I can only do things that feel important for me to say. The real question is, when are you ready to deliver the best material you have, the best way you know how? If you treat this in the same way as you treat a 14-year-old baseball player whoís supposed to be 12, then fuck you. If youíre going to give your opinion about this, it had better be thought out. You do your best work and know there are consequences to that."
Of course, as comedian and actor Al Franken points out, "You have to have respect for the people who died and who lost family members." For the satirist, however, the trick is knowing whatís respectful and whatís wishy-washy. To be sure, there are public figures who are just begging to be lampooned right now ó like Jerry Falwell, who recently blamed "the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and lesbians" for the terrorist attacks. "Heís a comedy savior," says Colton. "Heís home base. Heís a safe haven. You canít make jokes about the World Trade Center falling down, but thank the lord you can make jokes about Jerry Falwell."
Quite ó but can you make jokes about the president?
"I think itís a good idea not to touch the president right now," says Colton.
"I would say itís critical that no one criticizes the president," says Franken, who then adds, "in public."
But many satirists shudder at this behind-closed-doors policy; they consider it not only their right to publicly criticize and question the nationís leaders at the moment, but also their responsibility. "To me, itís scary that there are things you can say in your home but not outside," says Mark Bazer, a Malden-born, Chicago-based humor writer (and Phoenix contributor). "But isnít satire especially important in difficult times? Didnít Swift write satire concerning some pretty bad things in his day?"
Yes, but Swift didnít have the Bush administration to answer to. On September 17, Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher raised the question of whether crashing an airplane into a building was more "cowardly" than lobbing cruise missiles at an enemy from afar ó and was all but tarred and feathered for his comments. Sponsors, including Federal Express and Sears, yanked funding. There was even talk of taking the show off the air. On September 26, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer gave Maher a public telling-off, saying, ominously, "Americans ... need to watch what they say."
"[Fleischerís] behaving like a national nanny ó we have to watch what we say, otherwise heíll put pepper in our mouth," says Arianna Huffington, a political commentator and frequent guest on PI (and a guest on the show in question). "This goes way beyond Politically Incorrect and Bill Maher. This could be the beginning of a slippery slope." If so, then Maher was the first to go sliding down, eventually making an on-air apology for his remarks ó a humiliating defeat for a political satirist. "There are people I know who think Maherís a wimp for apologizing," says Krassner. "They say he got wimpy and scared. Well, I can understand his being scared."
Not everyone, however, will be so easily cowed. "I may choose my words more carefully than usual," says Barry Crimmins, "but I will not censor my questioning of policy or the people who are supposed to implement policy. I will not censor my criticism of Bush. Everyone still knows that heís an idiot, but now weíre supposed to convince the rest of the world that we canít tell heís an idiot? And thatís supposed to make us scary? How can I not make jokes about that? Thereís humor there."
There is, of course, the matter of national unity to take into consideration. "It may be that an important part of that," Crimmins shoots back, "is taking things apart first so we can put them back together the right way."
Despite his palm-thumping dudgeon, Crimmins insists heís not insensitive to Americaís collective pain. "I donít feel much like dancing myself at the moment," he says. "I can say all this stuff and still feel ó Iím crushed. Iím just heartbroken about this. Everyoneís emotional, and for very good reason. But we have to pay attention."
Steven Pinker, professor of cognitive science at MIT and author of How the Mind Works (Norton, 1999), probably wouldnít approve of Crimminsís acerbic brand of humor ó at least in light of the current crisis. "This is a way of lowering someone a few pegs," he says, "of countering claims to dignity. Itís a deflating tactic, which is why so many kings and presidents and gasbags and prima donnas are its target. I call it Ďdignicide.í It punctures dignity. But this is a situation where dignity is called for. A lot of lives were lost."
For Pinker, laughter has its roots in aggression. But as the past few weeks have shown, humor can have a consoling, unifying effect. On September 29, Saturday Night Live kicked off its 27th season with its first show since the attacks ó a prospect that for weeks had given its writers and performers sleepless nights and peptic twinges. At the beginning of the show, SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels stood before the audience and asked, "Can we be funny?" New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a guest on the show, chipped in, "Why start now?"
Of course, Giuliani wasnít really implying that SNL has never been funny before; he was giving the show the go-ahead to be funny now ó indeed, he conveyed his assent through a joke of his own. If satire is the comedy of recrimination, then Giulianiís good-natured ribbing was its opposite: the comedy of identification.
Certainly there was no underlying malice when some World Trade Center workers, frantic to make their way out of one of the towers on September 11, reportedly made light of the situation by reeling off the flights of stairs they were descending as if they were counting down to the New Year: "10, 9, 8, 7 ... " When fans at a Chicago Cubs game expressed concern that they might become a terrorist target, a wag in the crowd remarked that this was highly unlikely, as no self-respecting terrorist would put Chicago out of its misery by bombing Wrigley Field. Humor doesnít deflate only dignity; it can deflate fear.
Sandy Ritz, a "humor consultant" who specializes in survivor humor, spent a good part of the 1990s visiting disaster sites around the world. The one constant, she says, was that people demonstrated the need to laugh at their predicaments. Much of the humor Ritz encountered took the form of handwritten signs. There was the one next to a Los Angeles freeway following an earthquake: welcome to la, some assembly required. The one on the Oklahoma house that had been devastated by a tornado: for sale, fixer-upper. The one in a flooded Midwestern field: corn sold by the gallon. To the outsider, these kinds of jokes might border on the offensive, but for survivors, says Ritz, they are a "coping and hoping" mechanism.
"Laughter is a positive adaptive response to disaster," Ritz explains. "Making fun of a disaster situation relieves stress, boosts morale, and promotes social bonding. It helps you master anxiety and serves as a safety valve for letting out aggression and tension. It can be a means of displaying self-reliance and strength, of maintaining dignity and providing a palatable method of communication. Humor is the currency of hope. It says, ĎWe are in this together. You are not alone.í "
Thereís a paradox at work here. We tend to think of humor as something that becomes easier with distance ó temporal, spatial, or emotional. But, as Ritz and others have discovered, humor flourishes at Ground Zero ó particularly among emergency-room personnel and rescue workers. "I would bet my paycheck that thereís a lot of humor at the [World Trade Center] rescue site," says Patty Wooten of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor. "We might not understand this, but we havenít been pushed to the edge like those people; we donít need to laugh like they need to laugh."
In his book Laughter in Hell (Jason Aronson, 1993), which examines how victims of the Nazi death camps used humor, Steve Lippman demonstrated that those who found themselves at the center of possibly the greatest tragedy in human history still found it within themselves to laugh. As one Auschwitz survivor put it, "Without humor we would have all committed suicide. We made fun of everything."
"Thereís a belief in Judaism that before God creates an illness, he creates the cure," Lippman says. "We had humor built into us as a healing mechanism. If a person canít laugh, thereís something wrong. And if thereís no humor in a society, then weíre really in trouble."
Steven Sultanoff, a clinical psychologist, says he uses humor to help his patients restore not only their mental health, but their physical well-being, too. "Laughter does a lot of things," Sultanoff explains. "It reduces stress hormones. It stimulates respiration. It gives us a physical sense of relaxation. A few studies have found that laughter increases the production of T cells and [produces] a decrease in cortisol. There appears to be an increased tolerance for pain. But laughter is also a diagnostic tool ó the use of humor indicates that someone is healing."
But is America ready to be healed? John Morreal, a humor researcher who teaches at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, believes that laughter is a mechanism for disengaging the fight-or-flight response ó and he isnít sure that America should disengage just yet. "When a moment of danger has passed," he says, "laughter is a signal to the group that we can all relax. We laugh at the issue and therefore dismiss it. But right now we are in a time of incredible urgency. We could have a huge part of the world turn against us. Weíre still in danger. This is a situation where humor may not be appropriate."
For many Americans, this is not a time for laughter; itís a time for grief, for anger ó righteous, retributive, fire-and-brimstone fury. And, as Morreal puts it, "You canít be laughing and angry at the same time."
But this, says Ray Hanania, is precisely the point. "I believe laughter is a good antidote for trouble," he says. "Thatís one of the problems ó thereís not enough humor in the Middle East. Humor is the contradiction of fanaticism. I just cannot see Osama bin Laden telling a joke. You cannot be a fanatic and be funny. Thereís never a good reason to give up laughter, even in the worst tragedies, even in the worst moments. Every night I listen to this terrible news and thereís no place to go to get away from it. If we donít find something to laugh at, the next thing you know, weíll be fanatics too."
Chris Wright can be reached at email@example.com
Issue Date: October 11 - 18, 2001