Allen Klein, MA, CSP

"To the memory of those who made us laugh: to the motley mountebanks, the clowns, buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little.

—Preston Sturges

Part 1


Within hours of the Chernobyl nuclear-power disaster, the Challenger shuttle explosion, and even the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, tasteless jokes, often dubbed “gallows humor,” spread like wildfire.  But the day the terrorists' attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, humor, for the most part, stopped. 

The country, no, the world, was in mourning.

           Unlike Chernobyl, the terrorists' attacks weren't something that happened in some far away place.  It happened right here in the US and was the worst disaster in our history.  Unlike the Challenger explosion, where seven people lost their lives, almost 3,000 thousand people died on 9/11.  And, unlike the earlier bombing on the World Trade Center, a major landmark and symbol of the strength of the financial world was, not just damaged but, totally destroyed.

          The tragedy of September 11th was so sudden, so enormous, and so horrendous, both in terms of lives lost and global consequences, that this country and the world went into immediate and prolonged shock.  

          The gallows humor of previous disasters, no matter how tasteless, provided an outlet for people to vent their feelings.  But too many people were too close to the senseless attacks of September eleventh, and the repercussions too widespread, to joke about it.  Our sense of safety, for anyone everywhere, was threatened forever.

The Humor Blackout  

            No humor column today.  I don't want to write it
and you don't want to read it.
Dave Barry

          Comedians and cartoonists around the country grappled with the appropriateness of humor at this tragic time.  Shows like “Late Show With David Letterman”, the "Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn” and the “Tonight Show With Jay Leno” suspended operations. 

          Any attempts at humor immediately after September 11th were deemed tasteless.  The internet, where one would usually find gallows humor, was devoid of it.  At the same time, dozens of humor lists delayed their Web postings.  And jokes, which get passed around the internet on an hourly basis, ceased.

          Magazines suspended humor too.  The New Yorker, known for its witty cartoons and playful covers, had a dark gray and black cover and no cartoons.  It was the first time since Hiroshima that the magazine was void of any humorous drawings. 

          Satiric publications, such as the Onion, which received some irate e-mails for jokes that were already in the works, also held off publishing any new material.  This was the first time in the publication's 13-year history of the Onion, known for its sarcastic twist of society and politics, that an event caused such a major editorial decision.  “The age of irony,” noted one of it’s writers, “is over.”

          For the creators of comedy, there was a nagging question: When nobody feels like laughing, what do humorists do?

Will We Ever Laugh Again?
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose
under heaven.  A time to be born, and a time to die . . . . A time to weep, and a time to laugh.

—Ecclesiastes 3:1-2,4

          Two days after the attacks, I was scheduled to present one of my humor programs for an organization in Missouri.  However, it, and my flights to get there, were canceled.  But a scheduled program in Las Vegas the following week was not. 

          I wrestled with how to handle what I would say to the audience.  I questioned whether or not to discuss the events of the previous week.  Whether it was too soon for laughter?  How might the audience react?  In light of the recent death and destruction, would they think that what I was saying was irrelevant, and, even worse, irreverent?

          Since the goal of my programs is to show audiences how humor can both help them heal as well as deal with not-so-funny stuff, I decided to discuss the events of the previous week, the pain all of us were feeling, and how humor and some laughter might be beneficial.  I cut out a couple of airline stories that I knew would get a laugh because I also knew that any reference to air travel just then might make the audience nervous.  So rather than risk it, I dropped the airlines anecdotes.  Other than that, I proceeded with my usual humor program.

          My gut feeling about not altering my presentation too much was the right decision.  Many in the audience told me afterwards, “I really needed that.  It felt good to laugh again.”

          Moreover, while several of my programs were canceled or postponed, others organizations, which were struggling to come up the funds, called to book me.  “We desperately need you and your humor now.  We'll come up with the money somehow.”

          When times get tough, at some point, people instinctively know they need to lighten up in order to get through it.  But the time it takes for people to get to that place is not the same for everyone.  As my friend and hospital clown, Shobi Dobi says,  “The sharp edges of shock need a little time to mend.”

          Shobi reminds us, “Everyone needs a different amount of time to adjust.”  Some may do it in three days, some three weeks, and some three months.  For others, three years may not even be enough time.

          Late-night comedian, Johnny Carson, used to tell a joke about the assassination of Lincoln.  When it got little or no laughs, he would turn to Ed McMahon, his sidekick, and tell him, “It's still too soon!”         

That's Not Funny. . . or is it?

A sense of humor is a gift from God,
but like any gift, it can abused.

—Cal Samra

          It was a strange time for cartoonists, comedians and the country.

          On the one hand, both the Mayor of New York City and the President of the United States urged Americans to get on with their lives.  President Bush even tried lightening things up when he told senators in an Oval Office meeting: ''I'm not gonna fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt.''

          But, in spite of the President's urging to get back to normal, comedians who attempted to cheer the public up too soon were put down.  “Comedy is at a weird point right now,” Kevin McGeehan, a member of the legendary Second City comedy troupe, told one reporter.  “Nobody’s sure what’s funny anymore. There's been a very weird vibe since the attacks, where anything a comedian says can be misconstrued.”  And it was.

          Almost a week after the attacks Politically Incorrect host, Bill Maher, was reprimanded, by both his sponsors and White House, for a remark he jokingly made about U. S. bombing tactics.  Had Maher waited another week instead of a mere six days after the attack, noted one reporter, there would not have been such a fuss about his remark.  But our wounds were too raw, our grief too new to laugh. 

          Several comedians learned about the new rules of comedy the hard way.  Comedian Gilbert Gottfreid, for example, was booed when he remarked at a Friar’s Club roast, where offensiveness is often the norm, “I’m flying back to L. A. tomorrow.  I wanted a direct flight, but apparently they have to make a stop at the Empire State Building.” 

          In another example of too much humor too soon, a couple of radio disk-jockeys were fired for playing a parody of the calypso banana boat song Day O.  The lyrics, as evidenced below, were not really offensive to anyone, except maybe the Taliban.  But their boss obviously felt otherwise.

                    Hey Mr. Taliban, hand over bin Laden.
                    Daylight come and we drop de bombs.
                    One bomb, two bombs, three bombs, four,
                    Cruise missiles knocking at your door.

Someday We'll Laugh Again

Finding humor in a tragic situation is an extremely healthy step.  It is a way of looking toward the future and of saying that this suffering can be put behind us.

—Peter Weingold, MD

          In The Sandusky (Ohio) Register. columnist Dave Schwensen likened the September 11th attacks to getting beat up by a bully.

“Imagine a day on the playground during school recess,” he wrote. “An unseen bully, afraid you might be able to defend yourself again him, sneaks up from behind and delivers a sucker punch in your stomach.  It hurts, but eventually you'll catch your breath.  How you resolve the situation is up to you, but the punch isn't enough to keep you from someday laughing again.”

Part 2

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