“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.