Jokes About Terrorists

The company soon pulled the ad, but copies were saved and uploaded to the Internet, where it and Miracle became the subject of intense and vociferous criticism. Entertainment Weekly said it “might be most offensive commercial ever”. The Miracle Mattress Yelp! and Facebook pages filled with disparaging comments and calls for boycotts. Owner Mike Bonnano, whose daughter had, as the chain’s head of marketing, conceived the commercial and starred in it, apologized profusely but eventually decided to close the San Antonio location “indefinitely” pending disciplinary measures and donations to the 9/11-related charity Tuesday’s Children. Miracle Mattress reopened a few days later.

Pete Davidson has incorporated several 9/11 jokes into some of his routines. His father was a New York firefighter serving in Ladder 118 who died in service during the 9/11 attacks. He was last seen entering the Marriott World Trade Center. On September 12, 2021, Pete Davidson and Jon Stewart hosted NYC Still Rising After 20 Years: A Comedy Celebration, a comedy special performed in Madison Square Garden, with proceeds going towards 9/11-related charities. Amy Schumer, Bill Burr, Colin Jost, Colin Quinn, Dave Attell, Dave Chappelle, Jay Pharoah, Jimmy Fallon, John Mulaney, Michael Che, Ronny Chieng, Tom Segura and Wanda Sykes also performed.
In the days before the 15th anniversary of the attacks in 2016, Miracle Mattress of San Antonio, Texas, briefly ran a commercial promoting a sale themed around the occasion. In it, the daughter of the store’s owner, in conversation with two employees who stood behind her, explained how the store was recalling the Twin Towers’ collapse by selling all its inventory at the price of twin-sized mattresses for the weekend with the slogan “Twin Towers, Twin Price”. At the end of the ad, she inadvertently pushed the two employees into twin piles of mattresses behind her, one of which was topped with the American flag; both collapsed. After briefly expressing shock and horror, she turned to the camera and said “We’ll never forget”.

In the Family Guy episode “Back to the Pilot”, broadcast in November 2011, Brian and Stewie take a trip back in time during which Brian tips off his past self about 9/11 so that the present-day him can play hero and stop the terrorist attacks. This causes George W. Bush to lose re-election, meaning a Second Civil War starts that leads to nuclear attacks on the Eastern Seaboard. Brian and Stewie are then forced to go back and mend the situation, later noting that their celebratory cheers of causing 9/11 to happen again would sound really bad if taken out of context. A Time critic wrote of the episode, “It sounds custom-made for a ‘too soon’ label, and it probably is. But avid Family Guy viewers live for ‘too soon’ moments, no matter how sensitive the material.” Other news organizations, including Aly Semigran of Entertainment Weekly, also thought the show had gone too far with the reference. Deadline also commented that it “squeaked past the Fox standards and practices department but is sure to raise as many eyebrows.”
In 2016, comedian Billy Domineau uploaded a spec script to the Internet that he had written for Seinfeld, which had aired its last episode in 1998, set in New York during the days after the attacks. He said later that it had started when he suggested “a 9/11 episode of Seinfeld” to a student as an example of “an exercise in bad taste” for a class. In his episode, the show’s four main characters follow plotlines typical of them, all related to the attacks: Jerry becomes convinced that dust from the fallen towers is contaminating his food; Elaine, initially relieved that she will not have to break up with a boyfriend who worked at the Twin Towers, finds herself engaged to him when he unexpectedly survives; George basks in the glory after he is mistaken for a hero who rescued people, and Kramer attempts to recover the high-quality box cutter he loaned to Mohamed Atta. Popular minor characters, such as George’s parents and Newman, also make appearances. “[It] is indeed in bad taste, but it perfectly captures the self-obsessed way these characters would handle such a crisis,” wrote The Guardian.

In November 2001, South Park released an episode entitled “Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants”. The town is in shock following the events of September 11—for instance, children are sent to school in gas masks for fear of anthrax. Cartman, Stan, Kyle and Kenny are locked into a military plane by mistake and they end up stranded in Afghanistan, where they are eventually captured and held hostage by Osama bin Laden. The boys are ultimately rescued by four local children, and Cartman kills bin Laden in a fight resembling those in Looney Tunes cartoons during World War II. In October 2006, the episode “Mystery of the Urinal Deuce” aired, making fun of the conspiracy theories about the attacks. An outraged Mr. Mackey launches an investigation after an unknown person (later revealed to be Stan) defecates in a school urinal. Meanwhile, Cartman launches his own investigation into September 11, much to the frustration of Kyle, and ultimately comes to the conclusion that Kyle was behind the attack.
The Zero (2006) by Jess Walter is a post-9/11 satirical novel which features a New York City cop who shoots himself in the head and forgets it minutes later; his brain damage accounts for gaps in the story.To improve the chance of an Oscar award, a 9/11 joke was cut from Jean Dujardin’s 2012 comedy film The Players. The deleted scene featured a man seducing a woman in a New York apartment while an aircraft crashes into the World Trade Center in the background. However, perhaps reflecting how the acceptability to mainstream broadcasters of jokes referencing the 9/11 attacks has evolved only gradually, the DVD release of the earlier season five Family Guy episode “Meet the Quagmires”, first aired in 2007, contained an extended scene which was removed from the episode as it was first broadcast. In the deleted scene, while traveling in time back to 1980s Quahog with Peter, Brian is confronted by the boyfriend of a woman he has been hitting on. In response to the boyfriend’s challenge that he will fight Brian ‘anywhere, any time’, Brian invites the man to meet him “On top of the World Trade Center, September 11th, 2001, at 8am”, to which the boyfriend replies “I will be there, pal. You think I’ll forget, but I won’t!”. Additionally, the season seven episode “Baby Not on Board” features a scene in which the Griffin family visits Ground Zero, which Peter erroneously believes is “where the first guy got AIDS” Brian corrects him, informing him that it is the site of the September 11 attacks, and Peter responds, “So Saddam Hussein did this?” Brian explains that it was a group of “Saudi Arabians, Lebanese and Egyptians funded by a Saudi Arabian guy living in Afghanistan and sheltered by Pakistanis.” Peter responds asking “So you’re saying we need to invade Iran?” The season six episode “Back to the Woods” had Peter committing identity theft against a fictionalized James Woods, in retaliation of him doing the same and ruining his life. Peter appears on the Late Show with David Letterman proving he is Woods, promoting a comedy film based on the attacks. One notable 9/11 joke was one told by Joan Rivers, a major American comedian, in London in 2002. The joke concerned the widows of fire fighters killed in the attacks, who Rivers said would be disappointed if their husbands had been found alive as they would be forced to return money they had received in compensation for their late spouses. The joke received condemnation from Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

The September 11 attacks were a series of terrorist attacks by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda against the United States on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, in which nearly 3,000 people were killed. Jokes based on the events have been made in print and other media since soon after the attacks took place.Satirical newspaper The Onion cancelled their Volume 7 Issue 32 of the paper, scheduled to be released on September 11. John Krewson, a writer for The Onion at the time, said “For one thing, distribution would have been a nightmare. Second of all, we just didn’t think anyone was ready for a bunch of wacky jokes that were no longer relevant.” The paper also skipped the following Issue 33 as the staff went on a week-long break to reflect on the tragedy. Initially, the writing staff had considered not referencing the attacks at all in the following issue, with writer Todd Hanson saying “Our normal, irreverent, edgy, cynical, dark humor wasn’t going to be emotionally appropriate with this situation.” Multiple employees threatened to quit if the paper ran an issue focused on the attacks, but no employee left once the paper was released. The paper went on to release Issue 34 of the paper on September 27, with most articles being in response to the attacks. The leading article was titled “U.S. Vows To Defeat Whoever It Is We’re At War With”, with other headlines such as “American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie” and “Not Knowing What To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake”. The Onion’s Editor In Chief Robert Siegel later said of the issue “Everything in that issue either needed to make a point or express something people were feeling.” Jokes that directly poked fun at the loss of life were cut, such as “America Stronger Than Ever Says Quadragon Officials”, with the writers preferring to make jokes about how the American people were feeling at the time. No writers were credited with writing their respective articles, with all articles being credited to The Onion. The issue was well-received by both critics and the public. In contrast to these early jokes about 9/11, late-night comedy shows and humorous publications did not appear for several weeks following the attacks. The Onion, a satirical newspaper, cancelled the issue that had been scheduled to be released on September 11, 2001, and then returned to print with a special edition on September 26, 2001, which was devoted to the attacks. A number of scholars have studied the ways in which humor has been used to deal with the trauma of the event, including researcher Bill Ellis who found that jokes about the attacks began the day afterwards in the U.S., and Giselinde Kuipers, who found jokes on Dutch websites a day later. Kuipers had collected around 850 online jokes about 9/11, Osama bin Laden, and the Afghanistan war by 2005. A notable early public attempt at 9/11 humor was by Gilbert Gottfried just a few weeks after the attacks. During a comedy roast for Hugh Hefner at the Friars Club the crowd did not respond well to Gottfried’s 9/11 gag. One audience member at the club yelled out “Too soon!”, which has since become a common response to jokes told in the immediate wake of tragedies.

In The Simpsons episode “Moonshine River”, aired in 2012, Bart tells his father he would desire New York now that his two least favorite buildings have been obliterated, but then quickly adds Old Penn Station and Shea Stadium, after a pause.
Gilbert Gottfried was one of the first stand-up comedians to reference the 9/11 attacks on stage. Eighteen days after the attacks at the New York Friars Club Roast of Hugh Hefner hosted by Comedy Central, Gottfried said “I have to catch a flight to California. I can’t get a direct flight. They said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.” The joke was met with gasps, boos, and scattered laughter, with one person shouting out “too soon”. The joke was followed by the telling of a version of The Aristocrats joke, which was well received. In an interview with Vulture, Gottfried said, “I lost an audience bigger than anybody has ever lost an audience. People were booing and hissing.” The Aristocrats joke, however, Gottfried stated, was “the biggest laughs I ever heard.”Internet memes have become a common way of distributing jokes about 9/11, often lampooning 9/11 conspiracy theories with such phrases as “Bush did 9/11” or “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams.” An example of this can be seen in viral videos on Vine and other platforms that feature fictional characters, celebrities or other notable people appearing to be responsible for the attacks; these videos typically feature said characters or individuals throwing an object, or perhaps flying an aircraft, before cutting to footage of the planes hitting the Twin Towers (mostly Flight 175 hitting the South Tower). These videos are also sometimes accompanied by statements that said character or individual “did 9/11”.

Project MUSE promotes the creation and dissemination of essential humanities and social science resources through collaboration with libraries, publishers, and scholars worldwide. Forged from a partnership between a university press and a library, Project MUSE is a trusted part of the academic and scholarly community it serves.The next day, an unidentified audience member called 911. “There was a comedian. His name is Ahmed Ahmed and he’s, you know, Middle Eastern,” the man told a dispatcher. And he said, ‘We could organize our own little terrorist organization.’ And I don’t think that was right,” the caller said. Comedian Ahmed Ahmed shared video of Collier County deputies showing up at Off The Hook comedy club in Naples. Ahmed says someone listening to his routine called 911, claiming to be frightened for their lives based on one of his jokes. During the show the night before, Ahmed asked the crowd “How many people here are from the Middle East?” When a few people clapped, he says, “Well it only takes one of us…to tell a joke!” He then added, “But seriously lock the doors.”For weeks after that, professional comedians agonized over when it was safe to joke, and about what sorts of jokes were permissible and which were not. Articles started appearing in the New York Times entitled “Comedy Returns, Treading Lightly” [September 26] and “Live from New York, Permission to Laugh” [October 1]. Entertainment Weekly on October 12 ran an article entitled, “Comic Relief,” with examples of jokes that worked and did not work in a September 29 revue: one that worked occurred when one comedian flubbed a line and another spontaneously ad-libbed, “Hasn’t there been enough bombing in this city?” (bombing being show-business slang for total failure); one that got nothing but scattered boos was, “I wanted a direct flight back to L. A., but apparently they have to make a stop at the Empire State Building.” One article remarked that Jay Leno, a popular television personality, “started telling Osama bin Laden jokes, based on the ‘Springtime for Hitler’ model that says it’s OK to make fun of the bad guy.”[1] (This is of course a far older “model” than “Springtime for Hitler”; during World War II, there were many jokes about Hitler, of which my favorite was the song, sung to the Colonel Bogey march, that began, “Hitler, he had just one ball,” and ended, “poor old Goebels had no balls at all.” A Dutch friend who had lived through the German occupation of Holland said to me, “We joked about the Nazis all the time.”[2]) People began to refer to the attacks as 911, a nomenclature that was a kind of wry joke, referring simultaneously to the month and date of the destruction of the Twin Towers and to the telephone number that one dials in America in an emergency.[3]The philosopher Ted Cohen writes that “laughter is an acceptance of the world, like god’s laughter,” standing the doctrine of lila on its head; but he also writes that “joking is almost always out of place when it is a kind of avoidance; a laugh should not be a deflection from something else that needs to be done.”[26] Here we must again distinguish between the use of humor and masquerade as a temporary repression of reality and as a way of working through reality.[27] Black humor is designed precisely to uncover the naked truth, however painful that flaying may be. Terry Southern reported a conversation he had with Stanley Kubrick about Dr. Strangelove, in which Kubrick told him that he was going to make a film about “our failure to understand the dangers of nuclear war.” He said that he had thought of the story as a “straightforward melodrama” until one morning when he “woke up and realized that nuclear war was too outrageous, too fantastic, to be treated in any conventional manner.” He said he could only see it now as “some kind of hideous joke.”[28]We acknowledge the validity of this bracketing technique for coping with sudden terror, but clearly there are grave moral perils if we extend it beyond the moment of impact. For afterwards, when we have recovered our balance, it’s time to move forward in a different mode, one in which we have absorbed the impact, terror and all, into our real world and found the courage to face the fact that it is real, and with us forever after. At that point, we may make it tolerable not by imagining it as a play or a dream, but by looking it in the eye and joking about it. By joking we reframe the episode in our own terms, transforming it from a passive suffering thrust upon us into an active response to the world; we take possession of it by retelling it in terms that the perpetrator could not.

As recently as November 15, the Chicago Tribune ran an article in which the Chicago comedy team called Second City explained how they had begun to joke about September 11, remarking, “If, as the famous saying goes, tragedy plus time equals comedy, then time moved much faster than anyone could imagine back in September.”[6] But they had waited until two months after the attacks to do such a show, which they called, “Holy War, Batman! Or The Yellow Cab of Courage.” It was a success: “It was amazing how the audiences warmed up to the terrorist stuff so soon after it happened,” said the director; “the scenes having to do with the attacks get more response than anything else, and the person who gets the most response is the Arabic cab driver.” But they had rejected a number of skits as cutting too close to the bone, including “George W. W. III” and “Thank God We’re the SECOND City.” Permission to joke about the perpetrators, bin Laden (who was given a mythical brother, Hadn bin Laid) or, more uneasily, the Arabs in general, was granted long before permission to joke about the victims, and the latter granted only to the victims themselves: New Yorkers could say things about New York that no one else could say,[7] just as only Jews can tell certain jokes about Jews, and only blacks certain jokes about blacks. For permission to joke is granted at very different moments to the victims, the spectators, and the perpetrators (or those associated with the perpetrators) of atrocity or terror (even if the latter are personally innocent of any wrongdoing) or anyone who can be suspected of a lack of sympathy with the victims, for that presupposition of sympathy is the precondition for a successful joke.[8] Jews and Germans have very different rights to the satire of the Holocaust.When Mayor Giuliani appeared on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” on September 29, the producer, Lorne Michaels, asked him, “Can we be funny?” and the Mayor replied, “Why start now?” which got a big laugh and was much cited; “talking about laughter was a way of reassuring the audience that it was all right to make jokes. . . . Bin Laden jokes, lame though they were. . . had a ‘we-can-beat-him’ attitude that spoke to the national mood,”[4] but the head writer of the show blocked the words “terrorism,” “Twin Towers,” and “World Trade Center”[5] and ruled out jokes about President Bush, who until then had been the butt of all sorts of humor. (This latter censorship, unfortunately, continues to this day, evidence that some of us have not yet found the right balance between patriotism and freedom of speech.) The soul-searching of comedians went on and on.People who have been the victims of violence, such as rape, often dissociate themselves from the scene of the crime by telling themselves that they were not there, that some illusory double experienced the event.[23] It is highly relevant to our concerns here that those who perpetrate violence, too, may seek refuge by absenting themselves from reality in this way; we know this from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as from the insanity defense often invoked in present-day legal actions.[24] More specifically, Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors documents the ways in which those who perpetrated the atrocities bracketed their moral selves in order to project the responsibility from their evil away from themselves, doing this not merely in order to face others, such as the prosecutors at N’remberg, but unconsciously, for themselves, in order to be able to face themselves.[25]

Gallows humor presents us with a world that is hopeless but not serious. After September 11, many people whose initial, quite understandable disinclination was never to get into an airplane again, overcame that nervousness by saying, to themselves and others, “If we stop flying, they win.” This formulaic statement became so common that Chicago’s Second City comedy troop developed a sketch in which a “clay arts” teacher insists to his depressed class, “If we don’t glaze our pottery today, they win,”[40] while the producers of Fox’s MADtv rejected a stronger version about “sleazy lawyers declaring that they should defy terrorists by living their lives normally and so it was their patriotic duty to sue their mothers.”[41] I want to say, if we stop laughing at our own tragedies, they win. But if we can laugh in the face of the bullies who would destroy us, then we have won. To do this is to say, “Your grim, humorless world is not going to destroy our fragile world of self-mockery. We can still mock ourselves, and you. You are not going to get us. We win.” The situation is hopeless but not serious, and, if war is play, peace is all that is serious.

And war is illusion in another sense, too: there is a deep human need to transform terror into art, to regard war as theatre. “To play” in this sense means “to imitate or mime”, as well as “to pretend for fun,” and finally, “to perform drama on stage.”[17] Significantly, the word also means “to represent a person or character in a dramatic performance …, hence,fig. in real life, to act as if one were, act the part of.” In other words, the theatrical usage slips quickly into the idea of treating the real world as theatre.
That precious, banal half of the chart is also the place where the sense of humor is lodged. There is even a gallows joke about the Broadway play based on Anne Frank’s diaries, a joke that makes it just over the borderline of acceptable taste precisely because it is not about the real Anne Frank, but about the actress who played the part of Anne in the original Broadway production. Susan Strasberg played the part, and played it very badly, by most reports, which I can confirm, having seen her do it; on one occasion, at the end of the play, when the Gestapo came into the building where Anne and her family were hiding, someone in the audience shouted, “She’s in the attic.” Getting to a place where we can make, or appreciate, that joke means that we have overcome our initial disbelief, our inability to come to terms with the crisis as a part of real life, and have begun to forge ways of living with it.To some people, the idea of the illusory nature of the world, or of human activity, smacks of Fascism. It recalls the ethical problems raised by the idea of the Nietzschean Superman: Once the Superman realizes that nothing matters, that all is a game, he can watch other people play by the rules while he himself remains on the sidelines, where he can do whatever he wants. And, in fact, the “it is all a game” philosophy of the Hindu Upanishads was appropriated in the Bhagavad Gita to justify war: you may kill, indeed must kill, for neither the killer nor the victim is real. This Hindu view appealed greatly to Nietzsche; but it is a dangerous game. A grim example, far closer to home, of the moral dangers of confusing illusion and reality is supplied by those children who gun down their playmates, fully expecting them to get up unhurt and laughing, as in cartoons.[14] Yet we might ask if there cannot be an ethics of illusion, if the moral and the aesthetic are necessarily disjoint.[15] For the idea that war is an illusion may also be used in antiwar arguments. The very title of one of the greatest of all films about World War I, La Grande Illusion[16] (1938), says it all; the film was based upon a true story about a friendship between soldiers on the two sides, like the true stories of the men who sang carols together or played soccer together. The illusion is the war; the truth, the reality, is the shared humanity between men of different nations. Mel Brooks, auteur of The Producers, once said that when he was a foot-soldier in World War II, he used to tell the troops, “Nobody dies—it’s all made up.”[18] Made up by whom? we might ask. Here we might do well to distinguish between the passive, metaphysical aspect of this doctrine—that we are helpless players in God’s spectacular—and the active, secular aspect—that we are knowing players. The active techniques are what James Scott has taught us to call the “weapons of the weak” and the “arts of resistance,”[19] and masquerade is one of the most useful. On the other hand, the passive, metaphysical aspect of life as theatre played a major part in reactions to the terrorist attacks on September 11, which Americans tended to view as a disaster movie. Anthony Lane entitled his piece for the special issue of the New Yorker devoted to the attacks, “This is Not a Movie,” and remarked: “It was the television commentators as well as those on the ground who resorted to a phrase book culled from the cinema: ‘It was like a movie.’ ‘It was like “Independence Day.” ‘ ‘It was like “Die Hard.” ‘ ‘No, “Die Hard 2.” ‘ ‘ “Armageddon.” ‘ . . . What happened on September 11th was that imaginations that had been schooled in the comedy of apocalypse were forced to reconsider the same evidence as tragic. It was hard to make the switch.” And he offers an explanation for this reaction: unlike Europeans, Americans have no real experience of such attacks against which to measure this new event: “When a European surveys the wreckage of the towers, he or she will summon, consciously or otherwise, a folk memory of catastrophe. Not ‘It’s like “Die Hard”‘ but ‘It’s like the Blitz,’ or ‘It reminds me of Dresden.'”[20] A side effect noted by both Anthony Lane and The Onion was the feeling that disaster films would no longer be acceptable, that the experience of art as “as if” had somehow been spoiled, that the disaster film as a genre had become real and therefore no longer viable as “mere” art, no longer amusing. It was as if the genre had lost its sense of humor. I would draw a different sort of line between life and art here, insisting on a distinction between temporary crisis management and long-lasting ways of making sense of a tragic universe. I think that at the time of crisis, in the midst of our pain, we use the “it’s just a dream/play” motif to keep from falling apart with shock and grief, while in the long run we need humor to help us go on living.

The perception of the attacks as a film continued to color perceptions; according to Newsweek, two American women from Waco, Texas, captured by the Taliban and held hostage for five weeks, “often felt as though they were trapped inside a terrifying special-effects action movie,” and when they were rescued the father of one of them said, “I don’t think Hollywood could have done it better.”[21] In the article in The Onion, people also admitted to changing their ideas about violence, finding it less amusing in real-life than it had been on the screen: “I always thought terrorists blowing shit up would be cool. . . . .How could I ever think that? This is actually happening, and it’s just not cool at all” and “None of it is exciting or entertaining at all.” The article concludes: “Shocked and speechless, we are all still waiting for the end credits to roll. They aren’t going to.”[22]
The New Yorker began with a deadly serious issue whose tone was announced by the cover: an Art Spiegelman drawing of a black night in which one could barely make out two great black holes, the ghosts of the Twin Towers. But three months later, on December 10, they published a different cover, by Maira Kalman and Rick Meyerowitz, a pun on the famous Saul Steinberg map of Manhattan from March 29, 1976. The new cover map depicted an Islamicized New York, with places like “Bad, Veryverybad, Notsobad, Taxistan, Upper Kvetchnya, Central Parkistan, Lubavistan, Artsifarsis, Psychobabylon, Unmitigated Gauls, and with bitter ir
ony, “Lowrentistan,” where the World Trade Center used to be. The New York Times on December 8, 2001, ran an article on it by Sarah Boxer, entitled, “A Funny New York Map is Again the Best Defense,” which noted, “When their cover came out, suddenly a dark cloud seemed to lift. New Yorkers were mad for the map. They laughed.” And the point was clear enough, too; though “It looks like a map of the Middle East has been laid over the whole city, . . . It is still us against them that wants us dead.”The playfulness that we express when we joke about tragedy is an essential part of what it is to be human. Rudyard Kipling, in his novel Kim, coined the phrase “the Great Game” to refer to the war in what we now call Afghanistan, a war game played by a young boy, Kim, who was manipulated by an adult magician. From time to time, in real life, this play element in war emerges in the players’ awareness that they are merely pawns in someone else’s game. There was a Christmas during World War I when German and English infantrymen sang carols together; and another moment when the enlisted men on both sides stopped fighting for a half and hour to play soccer—casually, with no fixed rules—until the officers stopped them and artillery fire broke out again. All that was needed for the men to see that the war was a game was to forget the discourse about larger political issues and simply see what was actually happening to them right there. These moments have become parables in works of fiction like William Faulkner’s A Fable. But other players in other wars, most notably the Nazis and the terrorists, do not play by the rules, and that—not the war itself, but forgetting that war is a game—is what destroys civilization.

Now may well be a good season for gallows humor. The producer of “Saturday Night Live” specifically ruled out “gallows humor,” but I side against him and with the editor of The Onion, who said, “People employ irony and sarcasm—we do—because we’re bothered by false sentiment. . . Part of the healing process is to embrace the petty and insignificant.”[32] Josh Wolk in Entertainment Weekly remarked, “No, irony isn’t dead, despite its recent obituaries, but what is comedy’s place in a serious world?”[33] Central, is my answer.
The editor of The Onion was right when he said, “I don’t think the act of laughter negates the act of crying. The two are not mutually exclusive.”[35] When the Greeks invented tragedy, they always ended each cycle of three tragedies with a satyr play—a satire. The poet William Butler Yeats said it best, as usual, in “Lapis Lazuli”: “Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.” Socrates makes this point in Plato’s Symposium: “The true poet must be tragic and comic at once, and the whole of human life must be felt as a blend of tragedy and comedy.”[36] In an old New Yorker cartoon, the stereotyped bourgeois lady in a hat, talking with a man in an antique store, has just asked a question about a pair of masks of comedy and tragedy that she holds in her two hands, to which the caption is his reply: “I’m sorry, madam, we only sell them as a set.” We assume that she wants only the comic mask, but many people want only the tragic.The idea that war is a game, a form of a play, has deeper metaphysical implications. Hindu philosophy speaks of lila, “play,” the idea that the whole universe is merely God’s sport, a kind of spectacular that he puts on for his own amusement, a play in which it is essential for each of us to determine what role is ours, and to play it.[12] Indeed, where Einstein reassured us that God does not play dice with the universe, Hindu theology tells us not only that He most specifically does play dice, but that He cheats, and is caught cheating.[13] This darker implication of God’s play colors Shakespeare’s King Lear [4.1.36]: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; they kill us for their sport.” Here another sinister aspect of the word “play” comes to mind, and a fairly old aspect, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “to let a fish exhaust itself on the end of a line.” But it is the aspect of play as illusion that is most relevant to our understanding of representations of the Holocaust and of terrorism.

Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School and a professor in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Among her recent books are The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade (2000) and Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India (1999). “Terror and Gallows Humor: After September 11?” is excerpted from Ms. Doniger’s Huizinga Lecture delivered on December 14, 2001, at the University of Leiden.Before September 11, Americans were like God, spectators at the extravaganza. Some people say that on September 11 Americans awakened from the greedy dreams of the 90’s, when “everybody” got rich quick—except, of course, the poor. The Onion depicted Americans as resenting the fact that the movie they were watching was not properly scripted, just as Merlina Mercouri in the film Never On Sundays rewrote the ends of the Greek tragedies so that everyone lived happily ever after and went to the seashore. The article in The Onion, entitled, “American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie,” had a photograph of the Trade Tower wreckage with the caption, “An actual scene from real life,” and it quoted people as complaining, “This doesn’t have any scenes where Bruce Willis saves the planet and quips a one-liner as he blows the bad guy up” or “This isn’t supposed to happen in real life. This is supposed to be something that happens in the heads of guys in L. A. sitting around a table, trying to figure out where to add a love interest” or “If the world were going to suddenly turn into a movie without warning, I wish it would have been one of those boring, talky Merchant-Ivory ones instead.”

The September 16, 2001, issue of the Sunday New York Times bore on its front page this notice: “Several of today’s sections, including The Times Magazine and The Sophisticated Traveler, went to press before the terrorist attacks last week. The Times regrets that some references to events are outdated, and that the tone of some articles and advertising is inconsistent with the gravity of the news.”
The first publication to joke successfully about 911 was the September 27 edition of The Onion, a weekly Chicago newspaper whose usual nationwide website circulation of 158,000 jumped to the record number of almost 400,000 on the first day of the September 27 edition.[9] The headlines alone were balm to a wounded nation: “Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell; ‘We Expected Eternal Paradise For This,’ Say Suicide Bombers.” And “U. S. Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We’re At War With.” The article headlined “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule” quoted God: “I turn My head for a second and, suddenly, all this stuff about homosexuality gets into Leviticus and everybody thinks it’s God’s will to kill gays. It absolutely drives Me up the wall.” And under the headline of “Bush Sr. Apologizes to Son for Funding Bin Laden in 80’s” the article quoted the ex-President: “We called them ‘freedom fighters’ back then. I know it sounds weird. You sort of had to be there.”[10] But just as interesting as what The Onion put in is what they deliberately left out; the headline that actually appears in the issue as “Massive Attack On Pentagon Page 14 News” was originally supposed to read, “America Stronger Than Ever, Say Quadragon Officials,” the joke being that the Pentagon was reduced to four sides. But the editors wondered, “Does this laugh do more harm than good?” presumably because people died when that fifth side was destroyed, and the editors went for the milder joke, because they “did not want to come off as callous.”[11] Apparently believing that irony and sympathy are opposed (a belief that I do not share), they felt that to be callous would be in “bad taste.” Yet the jokes that they did make were joyously welcomed by readers of The Onion, who carried it around with them for days as a kind of security blanket that somehow reassured them that life was still possible, still good, that things were beginning to be normal again. Why was it so important to know when, and how, it was OK to joke about the terrorist attacks?It was difficult for us simultaneously to go on living with concern for the longer lines at the airport and the rising costs of fuel and at the same time to stay fully aware of the bodies still lying under that rubble. We strove to keep both of these levels of vision alive in us at the same time. But how? Good films about war teach us how to balance the microscopic view of our daily lives, including the trivia of humor, against the telescopic view of cosmic disaster.[34] This double vision can be achieved in real-life, too. On the wall of the central room in the house in Amsterdam where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis, two charts are preserved, side by side. One chart is a column of short, parallel, horizontal lines by which Otto Frank marked the growth of his children over the years, as my father used to mark mine, and I marked my son’s. The other chart is a map of Europe with pins marking the advance of the Allied forces—too late, as we now know, to allow that first chart to grow more than a few poignant inches. They are roughly the same size, those two charts, and they represent the tragic intersection of the tiniest, most banal personal concern and a cataclysmic world event.

For days after September 11, nothing was the same. But gradually, and not without feelings of guilt, we began, not to forget, but to bracket our shock and grief and sorrow and get on with our lives. We turned away from the figures of death and began to be caught up in the precious trivia of our family and professional life. Some benighted soul bracketed his grief so completely as to create a computer virus that masqueraded as one of the many appeals to peace protests that appeared on our emails. Such grotesque cynicism jarred us back into our original shocked concern and again mocked us for caring about buying books while so many of our fellow Americans could do nothing but hope to be able to bury their dead. We suffered from a mild version of survivors’ guilt.
Hello there! We take your privacy seriously, and want to be as transparent as possible. So: We (and our partners) use cookies to collect some personal data from you. Some of these cookies we absolutely need in order to make things work, and others you can choose in order to optimize your experience while using our site and services. It’s up to you!Additionally, we and our advertising partners store and/or access information on your device and also process personal data, like unique identifiers, browsing activity, and other standard information sent by your device including your IP address. This information is collected over time and used for personalized ads, ad measurement, audience insights, and product development specific to our ads program.

If this sounds good to you, select \”I Agree!\” below. Otherwise, you can get more information, customize your consent preferences, or decline consent by selecting \”Learn More\”. Note that your preferences apply only to Tumblr. If you change your mind in the future you can update your preferences any time by using the Privacy link beneath each ad. One last thing: Some of your data may be processed by our advertising partners based on legitimate interests instead of consent, but you can object to that by choosing \”Learn More\” and then disabling the Legitimate Interests toggle under any listed Purpose or Partner on their respective settings pages.
Please note that this site uses cookies to personalise content and adverts, to provide social media features, and to analyse web traffic. Click here for more information.

On a November night in 202
1, Das performed his full stand-up set at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and then returned to the stage to share a new piece he had written called “I Come From Two Indias.”
“There’s a reason that you don’t see it in the special,” Das tells me of the video, “which is because the special is very much about the aftermath of dealing with outrage. And I think we live in a world where it’s reasonably unpredictable what’s going to and what’s not going to resonate with people or cause outrage.”

There’s a really beautiful thing that you do visually in this special with the divided stage that represents these two sides of yourself. How did you arrive at that idea and why did you want to execute it that way?And when you hear American comedians complain that they “can’t say anything anymore,” or they’re going to get in trouble, how do you react to that? Because it is just so different from what you have dealt with.Of course, yeah. I felt like I had let people down. I felt guilty. I never want to hurt anyone, and so I just felt guilty. External factors aside, all you can do is internalize it and say, what can I do personally? So I was just like, I hope personally, I can bring people to the table again.

“I think that encapsulates the whole thing, that there was polarization, I had messed up, and I was the butt of that joke,” he adds now. “I think I had to be the fool in it, and never in a way that victimizes you or lionizes you, but just sort of maintains you as an idiot throughout the entire process. I think that’s what people will relate to more than anything else, because they’ve been the idiot of their stories.”
In this episode of The Last Laugh podcast, Das breaks down how he managed to turn one of the most painful experiences of his life into his strongest hour of stand-up yet in Landing, which premiered on Netflix this past December. He opens up about what it felt like to be labeled a “terrorist” for speaking out against injustice, shares how he pulled off the “magic trick” at the center of his special, and responds to American comedians who complain about getting “canceled” but have never been threatened with imprisonment for telling jokes.

I feel like all of this relates to the broader conversation about free speech in comedy, cancel culture, and these issues that American comedians have been speaking a lot about over the last several years. You have a great line in the special where you say, “Please don’t cancel me, it will interfere with my incarceration.” It really highlights the stakes of what you are dealing with, speaking out about issues in India—there are much bigger stakes and consequences to that than the idea of getting “canceled” in the States.

With five specials on Netflix and millions of followers on social media, Vir Das is an international comedy superstar who can sell out stadiums around the world. But his career nearly came crashing down after he put out his “Two Indias” video in 2021 and had charges brought against him for defaming his home country on foreign soil.
During that process, he asked himself, “Can I write a show that makes both the people who love and the people who are outraged laugh at the end of the day? And really, that’s what my show is about.”

That first joke comes early in the new hour, when Das tells the audience what it was like to find himself on the homepage of the BBC website. “Big headline that said ‘Comedian Polarizes the Nation,’” he says in the bit. “Do you know how badly you have to fuck up before the British say that you divided India?”
Listen to the episode now and subscribe to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday. It started, like most stand-up hours do, with one joke. “For two months, I agonized over that first joke,” Das says, explaining that he wanted it to achieve three things: make people laugh, make him the butt of the joke, and address the elephant in the room. The narrative of the special leads up to the landing of your plane in India after your speech went viral. What did happen when you returned to India for the first time after all of this went down?Das says he still doesn’t “quite understand” why the video “ended up getting a sea of love” and then “a sea of outrage as well.” It wasn’t until that outrage started to die down that he began to think about how he could “dig deep and turn the drama into something that brings people joy, which I think is essentially the job of a comedian.”

At one point, he even acknowledged the lack of jokes in his largely sincere speech by saying, “I come from an India that is going to watch this and say, ‘This isn’t stand-up comedy, where is the goddamn joke?’ And yet I come from an India that will watch this and know there is a gigantic joke—it just isn’t funny.”The five-and-a-half minute speech included lines that explicitly criticized his home country, such as, “I come from an India where children in masks hold hands with each other, and yet I come from an India where leaders hug each other without masks,” and even more pointedly, “I come from an India where we worship women during the day and gang-rape them at night.”There was a ton of paparazzi. We turned our phones off. The theme of the special is you turn your phone on after two months and you discover that that hate is yelled and love is felt. And you find love. You’re thankful that the people around you gave you the stamina to stick around and wait for the love. If you ever find yourself at the receiving end of outrage or anger, hang in there, love is on the way. So I think that’s really what happened: We came back home, we went underground, we turned our phones off, turned them on two months later, and a sea of love found us. I swore to myself that if I ever was able to gig publicly again, I would make everybody laugh and really treat it as a privilege. And so then we announced a tour and I wrote that one joke. I was like, OK, I need more than one joke, and then we were able to tour the entire world with it. So I’m happy to say that something that begins with a little bit of drama is then pivoted to making millions of people laugh. I’m proud of that.Because I have this sort of perpetual outsider perspective. I grew up in India, and then I was raised in Africa, and then I went to private school in India, and then I went to University in Delhi and public school in Delhi. Then I went to America. Then I went to Bollywood. Now I’m kind of all over the place. So I’ve always felt like this person who never belongs and is on the outside looking in. And then when I was writing this special, I’d seen a clip from The Prestige which is one of my favorite movies, and in The Prestige, Michael Caine says that there’s three parts to every magic trick: The Pledge, The Turn, and The Prestige. And it had been in my head that it would be really cool to structure a special around that, if there was a central magic trick at the center of the special. So what happens here is I “pledge,” I show you some sand. I pour some sand [on the stage] and I think you’re wondering what that is.