“The truth is funny. Honest discovery, observation, and reaction is better than contrived invention.” -Del Close, Truth In Comedy
When comedy touches on global tragedies like 9/11, the most common reaction is a knee-jerk "too soon!" jeer. Certainly in the decade since that fateful day it hasn't been encouraged, nor has it been common, for any sort of popular entertainment to make light of those events.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the country came together in such an earnest, sincere way that many wondered whether comedy in general would having trouble keeping up with the times. The same question was raised a few years ago when Obama took office on a platform of sincere hope and change.
But by then comedy had already found a way: honesty.
The first indications of the way 9/11 would influence our national sense of humor can be seen in the early reactions to it from New York institutions. Mayor Rudy Giuliani made a special appearance on the "Saturday Night Live" premiere, alongside New York firefighters and policemen. He was asked point-blank by producer Lorne Michaels, “Can we be funny?” Guiliani gave comedy his implicit blessing with the reply “Why start now?”
Even as "SNL" has weathered criticism in the last decade, the strongest part of the show has remained the Weekend Update segment, in which the cast members serving as anchors drop character and make jokes about real-world events in a relatable way. A recurring part of Weekend Update is titled simply with the exasperated inflection “Really?”
The Onion has long been famous for embracing the absurdity of truth by essentially reporting real news with specifically-phrased headlines. The first post-9/11 issue embraced the raw emotion that everyone was experiencing with headlines like "Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American Flag Cake," and "God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule," a piece that ended with God himself openly weeping.
Jon Stewart also fought back tears when Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" returned, noting that “there were no jobs available for a man in the fetal position under his desk crying." That speech, perhaps the most memorable of all the late night show hosts' remarks, accelerated "The Daily Show's" ongoing transformation from a less consequential news parody to an engrossing hybrid of commentary and razor-sharp satire. Like a stand up comedian taking down a heckler, every comedy program needed to address the elephant in the room before it could move on.
After taking a deep breath and starting over, comedy eventually started taking its shots at the architects of 9/11 itself. That season, the cartoon "South Park" aired an episode entitled "Osama Bin Laden Has Farty Pants" that spoke to a juvenile impulse in us all to ridicule the enemy. Creators Matt Parker and Trey Stone would amplify this spirit into the epically absurd film Team America: World Police in 2004, a wildly ridiculous takedown of the war on terror which is screening as a quote-along tonight at the Alamo Ritz. As the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan continued, people sought such ways to laugh away the frustration.
British filmmakers might have an easier time getting past 9/11 sensitivities: Chris Morris's debut feature Four Lions, which screens at the Alamo Village tonight, represents an achievement in brutal, satirical honesty akin to Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. It depicts five British Muslim men as they stumble hilariously on a quest to become suicide bombers, with recognizable human foibles and petty bickering along the way.
Even though it was fully nine years after 9/11, Four Lions still had trouble finding a US distributor until the Drafthouse Films arm of the Alamo stepped in last fall, and it's patiently growing success as a modern cult favorite. Another British satire, Armando Iannucci's In The Loop, found much more success going after an easier target in the controversial run-up to the Iraq war, fictionalizing a subject covered with much humor (and a contested amount of truth) in Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. The ongoing conflicts stirred deep emotion and debate throughout the world, but comedians and filmmakers have been pointing out the absurdities that bridge the gaps between sides.
Now, even when not tackling politically charged subjects, it seems like comedians have less time in general to roll their eyes and play to the sort of cynicism that one might expect. FX's recent breakthrough hit "Louie," is an experimental sitcom from the mind of New York comedian Louis CK, which utilizes agonizingly uncomfortable truths like unrequited love, or a paralyzing fear of strangers, to get some of the biggest laughs in the history of cable television. It tells fractured, deeply personal stories that would have been unheard of in pre-9/11 sitcoms. The first season featured an episode where Louie, under anesthesia at the dentist, dreamt about running into Osama Bin Laden and simply convincing the mass murderer that killing innocent people “is a bullshit move.”
This was obviously well before the May 1st raid and killing of Bin Laden this year in Pakistan. Tellingly, when the news broke, the jokes from the majority of the comedic world came from the tension inherent in rejoicing in the death of another human being. Instead of thumbing our nose and laughing in spite, we've started looking in the mirror and laughing knowingly at ourselves.
9/11 is obviously a defining moment for any generation old enough to understand what it meant at the time. Our world was suddenly was filled with terror and fear, and it echoes in the way we consume and laugh at many facets of the entertainment world. And in a decade marred by war, partisan debate, and a volatile economy, there just hasn't been as much time to indulge artifice and irony. The loudest laughs and the best jokes have been the ones that we can relate to, the people and the stories that speak to an underlying truth that we're always seeking to grasp. We live in the memory of 9/11, and the months afterward when everyone came together in an unprecedented way. As our lives go on and we drift apart from others, we've found in comedy reminders that we're never alone.
After such an incomprehensible tragedy, it couldn't have come soon enough.