How comedy survived September 11

Chris Hallam recalls the response to the Al Qaeda attacks

The attacks of September 11, ten years ago, were a massive human tragedy and perhaps the biggest news event of any of our lives. For the world of comedy, however, they did present a problem. How was any comedian or comedy series supposed to make people laugh, when everyone’s minds were inevitably focused on disaster?

One option was to ignore it completely. Although three of the leading comedies of the time – Friends, Will And Grace and Sex And The City were all set in New York – none were especially reliant on topical humour, so all three largely ignored the attacks when their autumn seasons began a few weeks later. Aside from the opening episode of the Friends season being dedicated to victims of the tragedy and the World Trade Center obviously no longer featuring between scenes, nothing changed on Friends;,while Sex And The City only referred to the events later.

The Simpsons too, not even set in New York, should have escaped such awkwardness. However, by a simple stroke of misfortune, an earlier Season 9 episode from 1997, The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson, had a plot heavily based around the World Trade Center. For reasons of taste it was taken out of syndication and only shown in Britain fairly recently.

Elsewhere, the feverish post-attacks atmosphere threatened to stifle satire completely. The 27th season of Saturday Night Live began with a sombre episode featuring an appearance by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, although still hosted by guest host Reese Witherspoon. However, the mood soon worsened, when the studio was subject to an anthrax scare a few weeks after that.

Other consequences were similarly less predictable. Who would have predicted that Ben Stiller’s Zoolander would flop in the immediate aftermath of the attacks? The film after all has nothing to do with any of the themes raised by the tragedy and has become a cult favourite since. Michael Moore meanwhile suddenly encountered massive problems with the publication of his anti-Bush book Stupid White Men. After a battle to release the book uncensored, the book went on to become the non-fiction success of 2002

Others, refreshingly, took the bull by the horns. The satirical news site The Onion, for example, delivered a top range of quality spoof articles ranging from U.S. Vows To Defeat Whoever It Is We’re At War With, Shattered Nation Longs To Care About Stupid Bullshit Again to Bush Sr. Apologises To Son For Funding Bin Laden In The 80s (‘We thought it was a good idea at the time…We called them “freedom fighters: back then. I know it sounds weird. You sort of had to be there.’)

The cartoon South Park too returned as boldly as ever in November 2001 with an episode entitled Osama Bin Laden has Fartypants, which saw the community already succumbing to fear of anthrax and a surge of patriotism.

In Britain too, a similar combination of fear and reticence prevailed briefly but it was fairly brief. Personally, I only had to wait until October to see my first Osama Bin Laden themed stand up routine (at Aberystwyth University). Russell Brand, then a fairly unknown MTV presenter was fired for coming to work dressed as Bin Laden, one day after the attacks. Another young comedian started beginning her acts in hijab and declaring: ‘My name is Shazia Mirza. At least, that's what it says on my pilot’s licence.’

Ultimately, the September 11th attacks paved the way for a wave of humour ranging from Curb Your Enthusiasm’s The Terrorist Attack episode a year later to the 2004 Parker/Stone  film Team America: World Police and Chris Morris’s Four Lions.

Of course, there was little to laugh at about the attacks themselves. But the fact that the comedy scene managed to adapt and survive within a new atmosphere not only of tragedy but of heightened security, demonstrates how strong the human need to laugh really is.

Published: 6 Sep 2011

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