Comic Jim Norton recalled that after beginning gingerly, his bits became more aggressive. “As time went on, I began expanding, shitting on the hijackers, talking more in-depth about it,” he said. “I never once said anything against the people who were murdered. One woman in Long Island began heckling me and I started slamming her. I was getting more and more aggressive when someone at her table looked at me, kind of pleading, and made the ‘please don’t’ face.” Realizing the woman may have lost a relative in the attacks, he backed off.
Mr. DiPaolo recalled that he first tried addressing the attacks just two nights after 9/11 at the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village. “I went downstairs, and there were only eight or nine in the audience and I went on a rant about terrorists and they loved it! How could you not talk about it?” His jokes targeted Muslims—cathartic, perhaps, but maybe you had to be there? “The FBI has trouble penetrating these terrorist cells,” he said. “Bullshit. Move to my neighborhood, I’ve been buying fruit from the Taliban for four years.” Asked to recall a joke that bombed, he offered, “Every Mosque in this country should be on fire.”
Marc Maron recalled taking a similar approach. “I had a joke about Osama working at the deli down the street from me in Queens,” he told The Observer. “I got into a little trouble because my instinct wasn’t immediately, ‘These are the guilty parties…let’s start profiling.’ It became very heated.”
“There are no rules in comedy—period,” Mr. DiPaolo said. “If I died tonight, I hope my friends would be making jokes at my funeral tomorrow. That’s the beauty of comedy.”
According to Mr. Norton, no subject is completely taboo if it’s approached with the right intentions. “Americans have gotten so obsessively hypersensitive and they expect comedians to be the same way,” he said. “Every event, no matter how terrible, is fair game in comedy. None of us wanted to start making fun of people jumping from the buildings, the victims, shit like that. We made fun of our own reactions to the tragedy.”
Roseanne Barr has never been one to shy away from controversy, once posing in a photo spread for the alternative Jewish culture magazine Heeb wearing a Hitler moustache and a swastika and preparing to take a bite of what the caption referred to as “burnt Jew cookies.”
“Laughter is the greatest weapon there is,” she told The Observer. “To laugh things to scorn ends their effect.” However, the actress, who noted that she has plans to run for President in 2012—as the candidate for the “Green Tea Party”—added that she still draws the line at 9/11 jokes. “I think its too huge,” she said.
Comic Gilbert Gottfried made one of the more controversial 9/11 jokes two weeks after the attacks, during Comedy Central’s Roast of Hugh Hefner. The now infamous crack, which was cut from the show but appeared in the critically acclaimed documentary about taboo humor, The Aristocrats, was this: “‘I have a flight to California. But I can’t get a direct flight—they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building.’”
“There was still smoke in the air, and I wanted to be the first one to tell a poor taste joke and shock people out of their stupor,” Mr. Gottfried recalled.