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.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 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.
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.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.” (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.”) 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.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.” 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. 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.”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.” 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, 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. 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,” but the head writer of the show blocked the words “terrorism,” “Twin Towers,” and “World Trade Center” 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. 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. 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 Nremberg, but unconsciously, for themselves, in order to be able to face themselves.
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,” 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.” 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.
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 soccercasually, with no fixed rulesuntil 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 thatnot the war itself, but forgetting that war is a gameis what destroys civilization.
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 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 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.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.” 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.