9/11 Jokes and the “Too Soon” Standard
by Jake Kroeger on September 13, 2012
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.