The End of Irony Was Announced Prematurely

Charles Fleming is the author of 'High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess.'

Two days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a man at a gathering I attended asked, “How long before the Osama bin Laden jokes start?”

He was met with shocked silence. But the answer to his question is: two weeks. That’s about how long the silence lasted. Then the jokes started.

At first, even the country’s most irreverent humor institutions gave the tragedy a wide berth. The aggressively satirical humor magazine The Onion, which followed the death of Mother Teresa with the headline, “Mother Teresa Sent to Hell in Wacky Afterlife Mix-up,” suspended publication for a week. Graydon Carter, co-founder of Spy magazine and now editor of Vanity Fair, declared “the end of the age of irony.”

Will Rogers may have been right that “everything is funny, as long as it is happening to somebody else.” But this was happening to us. We were victims, and there was nothing funny about that. When President Bush identified Bin Laden as the architect of the horror, though, and said the U.S. wanted him “dead or alive,” humorists had a target.

Even then, the approach was almost genteel and the irony almost absent. A Weekend Update anchor on the season opener of “Saturday Night Live” reported that Bin Laden was probably hiding somewhere “remote and barren, where he will not encounter others. The FBI has begun searching theaters showing the movie ‘Glitter”'--a reference to singer Mariah Carey’s film debut, a box-office bomb. It was the show’s only comedic reference to the attacks.


The Onion’s first post-Sept. 11 issue was not as snarky as usual. Gone were the wry anti-Bush headlines (“Bush Executes 253 New Mexico Democrats: Retakes State’s Five Electoral Votes”) and there was scant reference to the tragedy itself. Bin Laden and his terrorists provided alternative targets. “Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell,” read the headline of a story describing the hijackers shock at being eternally damned when they had expected an “eternity in Paradise, being fed honeyed cakes.”

Afghanistan was fair game, too. Ironic Times, the online Onion read-alike created last year by three former television writers, ran a map purporting to identify likely Afghani “military targets"--"major concentrations of rubble,” “minor concentrations of rubble,” “four or more tents close together” and “widows, orphans.”

On the radio, traditionally a more raucous medium, humor was sometimes coarse. Los Angeles-based KIIS-FM offered listeners “Osama Pinatas,” and aired a mock game show in which call-in contestants lobbed missiles into Cave No. 1, 2 or 3 to hit Bin Laden and win.

E-mails and websites struck with venom. One doctored photograph, entitled “Osama bin Found,” claimed to have identified Bin Laden’s hiding place, and showed the terrorist working at a 7-Eleven. Another, “Osama bin Shavin,” proved that an unwhiskered Osama looks exactly like O.J. Simpson. An e-mail contained a fake Power Point sales pitch to Bin Laden from the Boeing Corp. Noting the terrorist’s interest in its 767 airliner, the memo offers Bin Laden other Boeing products, like jet fighters, attack helicopters, guided missiles and gravity bombs. “Don’t wait for an appointment,” the copy reads. “We’ll just ‘drop in.”’

“You can’t make fun of the war or of Arabs or of Muslims,” says KIIS-FM market manager Roy Laughlin. “But the president set the tone--wanted dead or alive--and the president has a 99% approval rating. Making fun of [Bin Laden] is the equivalent of waving the flag.”

Bush, however, a constant target for topical or political humor, was suddenly off-limits. “The easy jokes you make about Bush--about how dumb he is, or the slips he makes--you wouldn’t do those now,” says Ironic Times’ Matt Neuman. “It would be foolish.”

But avoiding jokes entirely would be even more foolish. “Humor is a way to relieve stress, and we frequently laugh even when it seems inappropriate,” says Mary Ertel, a professor at Central Connecticut State University who studies the uses of humor. “Some things are so tragic that we have to laugh.”

Ertel recalls that jokes followed, with stunning speed, the deadly Challenger space-shuttle explosion in 1986. Bits of black humor followed the deaths of Princess Diana and singer John Denver, and the arrest of the man-eating murderer Jeffrey Dahmer.

Any joke requires personal, cultural or literal distance, Ertel observes. We don’t identify personally with Diana, Denver or Dahmer, so we can laugh, somehow, at their tragedies. We are not astronauts, so we’re not personally threatened by the explosion of a space shuttle. But we can all identify with civilians working in skyscrapers, and we all feel threatened by the intentional downing of a crowded commercial airliner. Which is why we needed a Bin Laden, who’s both culturally and literally distant.

The absence of that distance spoils the joke. Stand-up comedian Gilbert Gottfried learned that lesson last week, when he performed at a New York roast for Playboy’s Hugh Hefner. He opened by saying he was going to perform under his Muslim name--Hasn’t bin Laid--and got a big laugh. He closed by saying he had to catch a flight to Los Angeles. “I can’t get a direct flight,” Gottfried said. “They said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.” The audience booed and jeered. “Too soon,” a man in the back called out. Too close, too.

Truth is said to be the first casualty of war. Humor may be the second. In this case, though, the wounds were not fatal. Irony, like America, is a survivor.