Comedy and tragedy:
September 9, 2002 1:09 PM   Subscribe

Comedy and tragedy: a paper looking at "the role of humor in constructing a global response to disaster." Credit to Polo Mr. Polo for finding the above link (the original post was removed for reasons unrelated to the content of the link).
posted by KiloHeavy (37 comments total)
The MetaTalk discussion of Polo Mr. Polo's original post, for those interested in some backstory.
posted by me3dia at 1:15 PM on September 9, 2002

Thanks for the credit Kilo -- and please accept my sincere apologies for the original wording.
posted by Polo Mr. Polo at 1:16 PM on September 9, 2002

So has anyone here found comfort in WTC gallows humour? Then again, perhaps "comfort" is the wrong word. Personally, I've always found that gallows humour is a good way to - shall we say - blow off some emotional steam. So I guess the better question is, did anyone find WTC gallows humour helped them in dealing with Sept 11th?
posted by Polo Mr. Polo at 1:21 PM on September 9, 2002

Personally, I did not. I was a little too emotionally raw to joke about it.

I remember the jokes following the Challenger explosion, and although I may have giggled at the time, I was also 11 years old and not really sure yet *what* to do in response to such a tragedy.
posted by me3dia at 1:27 PM on September 9, 2002

So Kilo, what was it? You just felt honour-bound to repost it for him? You thought that WTC gallows humour deserved a second chance? You started a MeFi tag team? You wanted to repush people's WTC buttons just for fun? What?

Uderstandably it was probably pulled more for the accompanying comments in the post than for the link, but c'mon.
posted by mikhail at 1:31 PM on September 9, 2002

I remember watching footage of people walking out of the basement on Tower One right after the second Tower had collapsed. It looked like some surreal blizzard had taken place with all the debris still flying around and dust. So as the cameraperson is walking up the steps you see this damaged bus with a HUGE Zoolander ad on it. I thought that was kind of funny...
posted by stifford at 1:33 PM on September 9, 2002

Polo (and Kilo), it's a really interesting article....thanks! I'm going to dig into that site some more....

I too love gallows humor (Natalie Wood comes to mind) and just thinking of some of those horrible horrible (but funny) jokes made about some disaster or another still makes me me sick, but i think the "forbiddenness" of these kinds of jokes makes them all the more alluring to people, although it's admittedly an elementary-school level response.
posted by amberglow at 1:35 PM on September 9, 2002

mikhail: It's an interesting link. That's the test, right?
posted by blueshammer at 1:36 PM on September 9, 2002

Mikhail, go read the article. Mr. Polo's post was poorly handled, but that doesn't mean the link isn't postworthy.
It's not a list of WTC jokes.
posted by me3dia at 1:36 PM on September 9, 2002

I remember visiting The Onion site two weeks after 9/11. They skipped a week, then came out with their "Holy Fucking Shit Issue". I could barely get on the site the day it came out - very high traffic - there were other people looking for a way to laugh about this. I wondered how on earth The Onion would manage to be funny without being offensive. They did - and I think the key thing was that they satirized our reaction to the tragedy rather than the tragedy itself.

No one would be able to laugh at people dying, but it was easy to laugh at someone baking an American flag cake in order to deal with the horror, or comparing the towers' collapse with movies they've seen. And through this recognition of the fact that we've no easy recourse for dealing with this in our culture, come to create a more appropriate response.
posted by orange swan at 1:42 PM on September 9, 2002

I've noted that the vast majority of Sept 11th humour is mostly directed at Osama Bin Laden. Leno does bits about firecrackers shaped like OBL's head, Eminem dresses up like him, and innumerable websites run comics showing Osama getting raped by a camel.

Does this mean anger makes for more fertile comedy soil than sadness? Can anti-Osama jokes be seen as therapeutic? Or is it just thinly disguised hate? Conversely, can jokes about the actual Trade Center disaster be seen as therapeutic, or are they just thinly disguised examples of jerkishness?
posted by Polo Mr. Polo at 1:45 PM on September 9, 2002

it's a good point to discuss; it seems to me that the lack of humor surrounding the WTC trade center attacks, as opposed to the Challenger disaster, is that the former undermined the very premise upon which our current sense of humor is built on. As far too many people asked afterward, how can you be ironic after Sept. 11? This on top of the fact that most people were frightened beyond the capacity for rational thought, much less gallows humor.
posted by risenc at 1:45 PM on September 9, 2002

I have found humor in circumstances relating to the WTC attack, but not in the actual events themselves.

For example, the first time I heard a theory that blamed the attacks on Israel, I laughed at that. A co-worker of mine has a vacation photo of his family standing before the New York skyline from several years ago. We joked that it was insensitive of him to not Photoshop the World Trade Center out - remember the sudden rush to remove all evidence that the WTC ever existed?

But actual jokes (with punchline), no, I haven't really tapped into that yet. Even though I haven't left the Midwest since 9/11, I'm not ready to hear jokes about that point in time.
posted by rocketman at 1:46 PM on September 9, 2002

Others have already said it, Mikhail, but yes, the only reason I reposted it is because it's an interesting article on a timely subject.
posted by KiloHeavy at 1:46 PM on September 9, 2002

Actually, Orange, it was a discussion I had with friends about that Onion issue that got me looking for other WTC-related humour. I think that Onion issue worked because it wasn't simply going for schoolyard-style "shock value" humour (although I must admit, I have a taste for that too!). It was a brave move on their behalf, and I think it's probably the best issue they've ever done.
posted by Polo Mr. Polo at 1:52 PM on September 9, 2002

A good post. Yes osama getting raped by a camel very drole. Rape the universal equalizer.
posted by johnnyboy at 1:54 PM on September 9, 2002

I know what it is, and I did read the article. It's not the article that I am taking exception with. I'm just wondering why the rush to repost it? It couldn't have waited a day?
posted by mikhail at 1:56 PM on September 9, 2002

Would a day have mattered? What's the problem?
Apparently most of the people who flamed the previous posting weren't interested in the content of the link, just the poor execution of the post, since almost none of them have shown up in this thread. What do we avoid by waiting a day?
posted by me3dia at 2:05 PM on September 9, 2002

Here's an interview with the staff of the Onion from the September issue of American Journalism Review. They discuss the creation of their special "Holy Fucking Shit" issue, as well as the critical and popular response to it.

They submitted the special issue for a Pulitzer Prize, using this George Bernard Shaw quote in their nomination letter: "Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh."
posted by pitchblende at 2:50 PM on September 9, 2002

I, for one, welcome our dark comic overlords.

Probably no good as my first post, but thank GOD someone is laughing about this. The "this-is-the-worst-tragedy-to-ever-befall-mankind" thing going on in the US right now is enough to make me want to eat nails.

YES, it was horrible, YES, it was tragic, YES thousands of lives have been irreversibly altered, but how, exactly, does acting as though it was the ultimate horror ever seen benefit anyone? Why can't laughter be healing here, too, as it is in so many other horrible situations? Why is THIS the one we can't joke about? I don't buy "it's too soon" - healing needs to happen soon.

I happen to think that mass starvation in Africa is a bit worse than this, but no one screams when some idiot tells a "starving Ethiopian" joke.

Humor, for some, is the only way to get past pain and suffering - let them have it, for god's sake.
posted by tristeza at 3:01 PM on September 9, 2002

Life is Beautiful showed up in the earlier thread, and in the MeTalk thread as well.

The difference with Life is Beautiful is that is succeeds by showing the absurdity of horror. A concentration camp as an obstacle course in which its inhabitants are competing for a new tank? Benigni sells it in a scene when he tries to explain to his son where they are. But making buttons and soap out of people? Now that's absurd.

Outside of comedy, it's difficult to get that point across. But it's a different thing from gallows humor.
posted by blueshammer at 3:06 PM on September 9, 2002

How about funeral humor? My dad died three weeks ago. He was a funny guy, the instigator of a family tradition that involved passing around a lovely piece of sculpture. So we buried it with him. The funeral, a very solemn, sad affair, was lightened considerably by our knowledge of what was in the coffin with him. So, yeah, a little gallows humor is a good thing, in the right amount, at the right time.
posted by MrMoonPie at 3:07 PM on September 9, 2002

I love the urban legends about Osama Bin Laden hanging out with Elvis at a convenience store or converting to mormonism.
posted by ZachsMind at 3:16 PM on September 9, 2002

At around 11:30 PM on the night of September 10th, two friends and I were crossing the Canadian border back into the US. We were returning to Seattle to work a few days between performances of our sketch comedy show that we had taken up to the Vancouver Fringe Festival. So it was with stunning timing that we made it back into the country. The rest of the comedy group had remained in Vancouver, as they had taken the time off.

So events then of course transpired. Many phone calls were exchanged at the time between the three of us at home and our comrades still in Vancouver that now seem frankly silly: were we still going to do the second weekend? Could we even get back into Canada? Would anyone want to go see a sketch comedy show?

We elected not to go back, and as I said, it seems just idiotic that we even had a conversation about it in retrospect, but I guess we were all dazed. Anyway, it was all ridiculously moot because:

The show was called Gate 17. It was a sketch show whose conceit was that all the action took place at one airport gate. And the final sketch in the whole piece was when a trio of octogenarian terrorists blew up the airport.

Ho! Ho! Ho! That certainly would have played well later in the week. It's eerie that something that was so funny one minute (the show played an earlier Seattle run to full houses) was so emphatically not the next.

I'm not sure I have a point here exactly, but it seemed relevant when I wrote it.
posted by Skot at 3:28 PM on September 9, 2002

I think there is definitely a difference between gallows humor and outright meanspirited jabs at the dead, as in the Christa McAuliffe jokes I giggled at when I was too young to know any better.

It's easy to make jokes about Osama Bin Laden in the same way is was easy, and convenient, to make jokes about Hitler. Such a person provides a focus for rage and for feelings you can't get a grip on.
posted by Kafkaesque at 3:29 PM on September 9, 2002

The first bit of WTC tragedy humor I saw was the dude standing on top with the 757 photoshopped in the background. It was just under a week after 9/11 and at that point, I thought it was funny. The secretary in our office did not.

The Onion piece was another stress reliever. I didn't share that as widely, as I had come to the realization that I might have bad taste or I might go through the shock, grief, and recovery process at a different rate than others.
posted by mutagen at 3:36 PM on September 9, 2002

Am I the only one who thought 'Life is Beautiful' completely failed? Some things are too dark to plaster a feel-good message all over.
posted by Summer at 4:05 PM on September 9, 2002

Are we able to make holocaust jokes yet? Can a non-black comedian make slavery or racist jabs? I think we're in a precarious position here. WTC is our tragedy for the nation as a whole. It affected far too many people. The Challenger disaster was no where near the magnitude of WTC.

I don't think we're ever as Americans be able to make jokes about the WTC until a few generations have passed. Jewish people can certainly make jokes about nazis, but few can ever make a funny out of the holocaust. We as Americans cannot even touch 9/11 (unless it's really, really, well-done like the Onion), but we can certainly make jokes about terrorists.

What I wonder is if it is acceptable for foreigners to make jokes about it yet. Will it take us having a sense of humor about it before foreigners can? Or is it the other way around?
posted by Stan Chin at 4:11 PM on September 9, 2002

...the Christa McAuliffe jokes I giggled at when I was too young to know any better.

Her eyes, if I recall correctly, were "blue".

A relevant Salon piece on inappropriate reactions to the events of 9/11 here...I'm kind of shocked at how many of them seemed perfectly logical--easy enough to say when everything happened a continent away from me and most everyone I know, I suppose.
posted by padraigin at 4:42 PM on September 9, 2002

afaik, there were no falling people images on british tv (there was a still image, but i don't remember any moving images; i only noticed how "restrained" the news reporting is after i left the country), so i can't say i experienced them, but i can imagine someone cracking a (bad) joke as a reflex action. some things are so horrible that you want to do something to avoid having to face up to them - nervous humour is pretty much normal in that context.

last night my partner was watching saving private ryan - i walked into the room during some particularly graphic scene (it seemed to be a movie full of [particularly graphic scenes) and it was way too much. i was mesmerized for a moment, felt sick, made some weak crack, and then realised it was probably sensible to simply walk out of the door.

i know watching a hollywood video isn't directly comparable to news of 911, but i suspect the emotions could be the same...

[on preview - the salon piece was discussed here]
posted by andrew cooke at 4:51 PM on September 9, 2002

Are we able to make holocaust jokes yet?

That is very much a matter of some debate.

Interesting that the Challenger should be mentioned in this thread, as many of the jokes I remember from that tragedy were recycled in what seemed like moments to fit 9/11. This robbed them of the I-can't-believe-I'm-finding-this-amusing spark as far as I was concerned.
posted by MUD at 5:40 PM on September 9, 2002

"Tragedy is I stub my toe. Comedy is you fall in a manhole and die." - Mel Brooks

We're being very ethnocentric in this thread. I bet those sympathetic to Osama's cause were cracking jokes about the WTC collapse immediately after they heard about it.

I tried reading the links that instigated this thread. And people call ME longwinded! The author attempts to describe the whys about humor without really showing any comprehension of how humor works, and why we find things funny. I recommend to anyone seriously uncertain about this topic to read Steve Allen's "How To Be Funny." Though not very funny, it does successfully explain how comedy works. After a fashion. Actually, Steve Allen was pretty longwinded, too.

Or if you got a short attention span, try this crash course.

Pollack jokes used to be funny to me, until my Dad told me I was like, one sixteenth polish. Humor is usually at the expense of someone. If you study any joke about Nine Eleven which actually makes you laugh, it might be helpful to dissect the joke and figure out who the 'victim' in the joke was. Who is insulted in the punchline? Where does the proverbial cream pie fly and where does it land?

People who are in mourning due to a direct loss of this tragedy, may have been able to laugh sooner at a joke that victimized the terrorists rather than a joke at the expense of their loved ones. Why? Because comedy is tragedy that happens to "the other guy." Laughter is called 'the best medicine' because it can be therapeutic and help in the mourning, but only if the humor is 'tasteful' to you by being tasteless to your enemy. OR it can be a joke that makes fun of something general. Something you can't directly relate to. There's some Nine Eleven jokes at the expense of our government. How the FBI & the CIA didn't communicate well before the event but might attempt to use smoke signals now. I remember an editorial cartoon once with a cartoony donkey & a cartoony elephant in suits marching towards the viewer arm in arm calling one another "friend" and "chum" which is something that stereotypically, Democrats & Republicans didn't call one another prior to Nine Eleven. That joke was at the expense of american politicians, but it was done in a way that maybe even (some open minded) politicians could have found amusing. Slate has a great collection of editorial cartoons made since Nine Eleven.

We as Americans can't as easily laugh at the crater in the middle of Manhattan. It would be like laughing at a gaping wound in our chest. However, time heals all wounds, and in time we can all learn to look back without anger but in rememberance of those we lost. I intend to have a drink in their honor this Wednesday, and I plan to enjoy myself. If that comes with laughter, so be it.
posted by ZachsMind at 5:45 PM on September 9, 2002

ZachsMind: Little is more unfunny than attempts to explain humor. (I would add that, still, that there is a big difference between seriousness and solemnity. Also, the best humor provides a means of understanding the world, no matter how obscure this may seem at the time. It's commentary, even if unconsciously so - a language all its own.) In any case, I only made one joke in public on 9-11, and it was at the expense of George Stephanopoulos' hair. Then again, maybe it was about (I feel odd saying that it was "at the expense of") George's hair, celebrity reporting and our "familiarity" with people we don't actually know, ABC, what have you.

Now, enough with analysis: The witticism was heard around noon in the hallway of a university social sciences building, where an academic department (which, it later turned out, had a faculty member whose brother died in the WTC) had set up a television. Faculty and students were gathered around. Everyone was watching intently, all of us were worried out of our skulls, all that. George was introduced, live from the scene in NYC, and I couldn't help saying, "There's George, looking no less disheveled than ever." Everyone around chuckled, in a manner suggesting, "Oh, thanks for that."
posted by raysmj at 8:38 PM on September 9, 2002

Humor has its place in healing, though I was hard pressed to find much in events to lighten my heart last year, or even now, a full year later. However, I did find it truly hilarious when the Bin Laden & Bert posters surfaced at the Taliban rallies...haha, how bizarre was that? Once again proving fact is more fabulous than fabrication.
posted by madamjujujive at 9:38 PM on September 9, 2002

Summer, I hated Life is Beautiful. I thought it was cheap, trite, pat bullshit. And I noticed when I left the cinema that my fellow patrons were laughing, thought the story was cool, the lead was cute, and completely forgot the rest. Even Spielberg's cheesy Schindler's List was better than that.

Benigni (was that his name?) of course was not a survivor, but managed to take one of the great outrages of history and turn it into a backdrop for light romantic comedy. Feh.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:20 AM on September 10, 2002

I think context is important. A Princess Diana joke might be funny to you and your buds, but you wouldn't crack one in front of her kids (I hope).

In a community as big as this one, there are undoubtedly some people who were directly affected. Refraining from jokes in their "presence" isn't PC, it's polite and humane.
posted by JoanArkham at 5:11 AM on September 10, 2002

i remember being stuck in nevada smiths with a very drunk cop who told me very long tales of the clean up operation and the death of his cousin , over and over again , in between he would turn to the barman and say 'give me another kamikaze'.

personally i use humour to detach from the onslaughts of people who have been in a tragic event and are stuck in a situation where they are not willing to do anything to get out of it and would quite like you to be screwed up too.

i myself have lost a loved one recently and i really cant see them sitting up there in heaven hoping im having a terrible time without them.

i think this kind of link reflects on people who look for sources outside themselves to see how they should be feeling.

i think the dictat that you should be sitting there bringing intense suffering and misery on yourself after a tragedy for a very long period of time so that you have no chance to recover whatsoever is far worse than a couple of sick jokes.

seeing as this is all about people , does anyone know why no one is providing any compensation to the people injured in 9/11 ?
posted by sgt.serenity at 5:45 AM on September 10, 2002

« Older The first world, or west   |   Go to Mickey D's. Watch ABC. Get happy. Go to... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments