Comedy, Tragedy, and Time
It might seem a quaint concern ten years after the fact, but in the wake of the September 11th attacks American comedy faced an existential crisis. How could satire, especially political satire, cope with such a horrifying tragedy? A decade later, two particular responses stand out from the crowd.
The week after the attacks, The Daily Show's Jon Stewart opened the program with an earnest, funny, eloquent, and heartbreakingly raw monologue (alt. video - transcript) which endeavored to "drain whatever abscess is in our hearts" by explaining "why I grieve... but why I don't despair" -- betraying a passion that would later drive his fierce crusade against the appalling blockade of health benefits for 9/11 first responders.
Meanwhile, across town, some newcomers from Madison quietly published one of the first sardonic reactions to the atrocity -- a brilliant edition of The Onion that crystallized the national zeitgeist with stories of rage, helplessness, hypocrisy, and grief-stricken pathos. The "searingly brutal" issue drew both criticism and praise... and almost won a Pulitzer Prize. Perhaps the George Bernard Shaw quote in the nomination letter said it best: "Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh."
"I tried shouting to the people on the dance floor that the roof was on fire and that they should exit the premises immediately, but they seemed unfazed by the danger," firefighter Michael Pitti said. "I just kept shouting, 'The roof! The roof! The roof is on fire!' and so forth, but they just went right on dancing, insisting that they didn't need any of our water and that we should let the motherfucker burn."
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