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9/11 Jokes and the “Too Soon” Standard

Eleven years ago yesterday, the entire world was paralyzed in shock at the events of September 11th, 2001. It marked the beginning and end of an era, a rare instance in the history of any generation. So, I ask you now, does comedy about, or referencing, 9/11 still upset you, if it ever has?

It’s not surprising that 9/11 humor was, is, and will continue to be made, but it was striking to me that there are plenty of comedians that cracked a 9/11 joke that fateful night and did so with conviction. With such a harrowing tragedy, popular opinion would dictate that time was needed to be able to laugh about it, though, of course, comedians thrive off of the ridicule of popular opinion. Many comedians actively seek the glory of trying to transform the horrific into the hysterical as, if you watch a lot of comedy, especially stand-up, they aren’t too far apart. The subject of 9/11 thus gives us a live anthropological study of comedy and its relation to such generation defining atrocities, which has surprisingly not been as taboo as conventional wisdom might lead one to believe.

All the way from 9/11 to now, there have been hundreds if not thousands of 9/11 bits of comedy that have been created and put into some public forum, whether it be a comedy show or a sketch or movie, etc., and some of it has been funny, some of it has been not funny at all, and some of it has been hysterical. Usually, stories that involve someone doing something horribly vapid or ignorant of what had just taken place are the ones that consistently prove to be the funniest.

While there had to be some derision at anyone cracking a 9/11 joke in some bar within the first six months, 9/11 hasn’t been proven to be some especially off-limits topic any time it’s brought up. Actually, more people have gotten more upset at jokes dealing with rape, race, homophobia, and religion, it seems, than any joke mentioning 9/11 or the Holocaust or anything else of that nature. There is no Nielsen ratings system to gauge how and what people are sensitive to, but more has definitely been written about people getting offended by the aforementioned topics than anyone losing it over a 9/11 bit. If you look at the relatively recent incidents with Daniel Tosh, Tracy Morgan, and Katt Williams, topics that should be objectively be potentially less offensive than 9/11 seem to bring out more outrage in people.

Granted, those that have a close relation to the event (i.e. they had a loved one die in 9/11 or lived in NYC) have a different sensibility about hearing jokes about it, but that’s the point here, really. Everyone’s sensitivities are different, as obvious as that might sound, and what they laugh about will consequently be different without regard to what the subject matter is, their relation to it, or how much time has passed. Just because someone is offended at a 9/11 bit of humor doesn’t make them right. The dichotomy of right and wrong has no real purpose in comedy, especially given how funny some people’s terrible lives are.

In comedy, the only dichotomy that matters is funny and unfunny.

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9 comments

  • It’s all about content. The reason people got offended by Tosh and Tracy Morgan was that the jokes were (or just plain verbal harassment in Tosh’s case) were victimizing.

    A 9/11 joke that made fun of the victims in such a way as to revictimize them or their families would be found summarily unfunny. A 9/11 joke that enters into discourse about the actual events/actual feelings about the events could be funny/acceptable.

  • I usually don’t see funny 9/11 jokes as being directed at the tragedy that was the event, but more about relieving people of the burden of the mythos of the event. A sort of stress reliever, deflating whatever sense of sadness/anger you might still be carrying with you after all this time.

    Also, it’s not about making fun of the victim, but more about the people who use it as their own personal exclamation point for whatever they’re saying, like that horrible movie where the twist ending is that he’s in the World Trade Center on 9/11.

  • Its all about the content of the joke IMO. For example Cameron mentioned someone doing pics of other stuff that brought down the towers, personally I don’t find that funny at all. Those images are still pretty graphic and stunning to people. Maybe after a seriously long time something like that won’t even bat an eye.

    Most other stuff doesn’t bother me. Family Guy has made a few, and South Park did a whole ‘9/11 Conspiracy’ episode. However in neither are they really making fun of the victims or going too far. You just got to judge your audience and what the crux of the joke depends on.

  • I had a somewhat ‘ntense discussion about this on FB, about visuals memes that are circulating showing an alternate cause for the towers falling. (Thor, Nyan Cat, Hulk Hogan, etc.) My argument was that these picture contain a moment when real people are literally suffering and dying. My conclusion, misfortune is funny, murder is not.

  • I had a somewhat ‘intense’ discussion about this on FB, about visuals memes that are circulating showing an alternate cause for the towers falling. (Thor, Nyan Cat, Hulk Hogan, etc.) My argument was that these picture contain a moment when real people are literally suffering and dying. My conclusion, misfortune is funny, murder is not.

  • Too soon.

    I think there will be a time where we can have a discussion about whether jokes about 9/11 are okay. But eleven years and two days later is the very definition of “too soon”.