“Happy 9/11, everybody!”
It was actually September 9, nearly ten years after the attacks, and comedian Nick DiPaolo was on stage at the Gotham Comedy Club, where he’d been headlining, taking a chance that with a decade’s distance audiences might finally be ready to laugh—not about the thousands of dead, of course, but maybe about our shared anxieties and the collective experience of living with tragedy and fear.
Instantly, the house went cold, almost dead. Mr. DiPaolo, a 25-year standup veteran looked thrown for a moment. He paused, cocking his head and shooting the audience a look of disapproval, then he pushed on with his rant. “I want to call 311 and say, ‘I fucking saw something and so I’m saying something! I saw two fucking planes crash ten years ago! Do you remember that?’”
The audience erupted into an almost primal frenzy of cheers. For the remainder of the evening’s show, though, he’d steer clear of the topic. They say comedy equals tragedy plus time, but how much time exactly? When is it “too soon,” and when is it perhaps too late?
“Being offended has everything to do with what it is that the listeners cherish and value at a particular time,” Paul Lewis, a professor of English at Boston College and the author of Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict, told The Observer. “At different times in your life you have a stronger or weaker commitment to a given idea or image and you do or don’t want it messed around with in a joke. A tactful comedian knows that for any particular audience there are lines that should not be crossed.” For instance, he said, a dead-baby joke might land very differently for a group of teenagers than it would for the same audience ten years later, when they’re having children of their own. “A line has appeared, right?”
New York’s first responders and the construction crews on the Pile took incalculable risks in the hours and weeks after 9/11, but comics took some risks of their own, and while the results might not always have gone over well, they were generally part of an effort to help people process the experience, and the uncomfortable emotions it gave rise to. Gallows humor is a survival technique, after all. When a comedian makes a successful joke in response to a real tragedy, it can awaken an audience’s defiant spirit; when the joke bombs, it just pisses them off.
Contrary to Mel Brooks’s famous line from The 2000 Year Old Man—”Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die”—according to a number of comics, the 9/11 jokes that really, well, killed in the early days tended to be those that targeted either the terrorists themselves or the comedians’ own failings and anxieties. Much was made of the response by The Onion—newly transplanted to New York from Wisconsin—which included such headlines as “American Life Turns into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie” and “Not Knowing What Else to Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake.” David Letterman returned to the air six days after the attacks, with a heartfelt monologue that was perhaps most notable for its earnestness and lack of humor; his only jokes were about his hair, Paul’s lack of hair, and guest Regis Philbin: “Thank god Regis is here, so we have something to make fun of.”
In the city’s comedy clubs, stand-ups were free to take more chances.
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.
Though the joke eventually gained Mr. Gottfried respectability, he said, the initial reaction was negative. “First there was a gasp and a lot of angry grumbling,” he recalled. “Some people booed, moaned and hissed, and one guy yelled out, ‘Too soon!’ I thought that he meant that I hadn’t taken enough time between the set up and the punch line! Someone tweeted at me the other day and wrote: ‘You make me laugh when I don’t want to,’ and that’s what I’ve felt for years I have felt I’ve done.”
Mr. Gottfried, who recently lost a gig as the Aflac duck after unleashing a series of questionable tweets about the Japanese tsunami, said that he wouldn’t repeat the 9/11 joke for an audience, but not for the reasons one might expect. “Now it’s past the shock point, and I like it when it’s shocking,” he said. “I always wanted to know where the person is in a big office who measures the amount of time and says, ‘Now you can say this!’” he added. “I feel like a person who wears a little ribbon on their lapel, or whatever is the latest thing, is no more sensitive or caring than somebody who cracks jokes about it.”
Joan Rivers delivered a 9/11 joke the same evening (it was also cut from the broadcast). The terrorists are going to win, she said, “…they’re gonna win because they’re ugly and horrible and they can slam into a building and they get 72 virgins. What’s a Jewish guy going to get? A 50-year-old woman who still won’t swallow.”
Sarah Silverman deployed her signature brand of faux-naiveté, suggesting, “If American Airlines were smart, their slogan would be: ‘American Airlines first through the towers,’ because it is something in which they came first.” Louis C.K. opted to use the event to mock himself, theorizing, “You can figure out how bad a person you are by how soon after September 11th you masturbated. And for me it was between the two buildings going down. And you know, I had to do it. Otherwise they win.”
That night at the Comedy Cellar, with the fallen Trade Center still smouldering, Mr. Norton recalled, “A bunch of comics were hanging—myself, Patrice O’neal, Keith Robinson, Greg Giraldo, Chris Rock—and we started to talk to each other about thoughts we’d had about what we would have done if we were on one of the hijacked planes. We realized, like asses, that we all had these embarrassing fantasies of saving the day in that situation. So we went onstage and began talking about our individual fantasies, and the crowd loved it. They all related to it.”
Mr. Giraldo, who passed away this year, remembered the night fondly, turning it into a bit: “There wasn’t even electricity in some parts of the city, but we started doing shows because people seemed to want to come out; they seemed to want to laugh,” he would tell audiences, adding, “There were bachelorette parties, and I thought, Holy shit, I never thought that I would be proud to see a pack of drunken Jersey girls with condoms on their heads.
“I thought, Shit they are never going to be able to change the American way of life.”