A now well-known joke that circulated within the first or second year after September 11, 2001 goes as follows:
“You promised you’d never forget it.”
The punch line, of course, relates to the chorus that became ubiquitous in the United States after the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people and rocked the country. “Never Forget” embodied the reflexive patriotism of a time when people began to hang American flags on their cars and place them in their front yard. September 11th quickly became something sacred and untouchable – a malleable symbol and political litmus test as well as a series of horrific events. The knock-knock joke was a small, hurtful gesture; it pierced the etiquette that said people must approach certain tragedies with profound moral seriousness.
Many of these jokes were popular in the first few years after September 11th. The question of whether they resulted in more than the sum of their parts – whether they were something of dissent in the times of George W. Bush – a new documentary tries to answer. Too early, directed by Nick Scown and Julie Seabaugh, traces nearly two decades of 9/11 comedy through interviews with late-night presenters, writers, and stand-up performers. The film is a compelling journey back in time to a cultural moment that has indelibly changed the course of modern comedy, although it ends by exaggerating the power of satire to shape politics alone.
The film unfolds in roughly chronological order, starting with the first few weeks after September 11th, when several New York comedy clubs were temporarily closed and most comedians acted cautiously for fear of offending a raw and injured audience. “Humor hides itself”, it was said in the headlines of the think-piece. David Letterman and Jon Stewart gave serious, tearful responses to 9/11 on the air, but not all were that careful. Too early takes its title from a viewer’s reaction to a joke that Gilbert Gottfried told two weeks after the towers collapsed when there was still smoke in the sky of Manhattan. Gottfried briefly lost the crowd after joking that he couldn’t get a direct flight to California because the plane “had to stop at the Empire State Building first”. He won her back with his unconventional “aristocrats” routine, a version of a vaudeville-era gag with incest. As Gottfried and other comics explain in the film, Americans were ready to laugh again, just not at terrorism.
Some of the comedic experiments that immediately followed 9/11 tested the limits of freedom of speech for entertainers who, over time, established the new rules of acceptable taste and found that even jokes on the 9/11 topic occasionally had a limit exceeded . Shortly thereafter, Bill Maher described US military policy as “cowardly” Politically incorrect, then – press secretary Ari Fleischer advised Americans to “watch what they say,” and ABC eventually canceled the show. Doug Stanhope’s disrespectful jokes about first responders earned him death threats. Janeane Garofalo’s anti-war comments later made her the target of a right-wing media harassment campaign.
Other comedy writers played it safe and felt the need for gentle, comfortable laughter instead of controversy. For example, Saturday night live aired an episode with the Ground Zero Firefighters and then Mayor Rudy Giuliani on September 29, 2001, an ode to the strength and resilience of New Yorkers. The onion– a small indie newspaper at the time – distributed a warm and well-received 9/11 issue with headlines like “Hugging Up 76,000 Percent”. (Over the next several years – when the dust literally and figuratively subsided – the paper swung to harsher views on America’s response to terrorism, but those did not appear in the film.) The comedians and satirists interviewed in Too early describe humor as a coping mechanism for performers and audience alike, as an attempt to process tragedy and move away from it in order to return to normal.
But we know the spoiler here: There would be no return to normal for the country. Within a year or two of 9/11, the comedy began to pick up on many of the following changes – government surveillance, color-coded threat levels, and a war justified by unsubstantiated claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. In the documentary, comedian Laurie Kilmartin explains how the cast calibrated their jokes for the audience: “It’s never the real thing to make fun of; that’s how everyone reacts to it. ”The political climate forced the comedians to back up their ideological positions – and separated those who were conservative, like Dennis Miller, more from liberals, America’s botched reaction to the attacks and the chilling imperative, questions in general to pose, mocked, like Marc Maron and David Kreuz. Though not specifically mentioned in the film, the Liberal (and Libertarian as we should be counting) is South Park) ultimately made the greatest cultural trace.
Too early Effectively reminds viewers how deeply the politics that emerged from 9/11 have infiltrated comedic entertainment. It plays all of the hits, including George Carlin on Pointless Consumption (“Go out and buy jewelry and a new car, or the terrorists win”) and The simpsons on US militarism (“War is not the answer, except for all America’s problems”). The documentation includes clips from Team America: World Police, Chappelle’s show, and the “Axis of Evil” comedy tour with a band of stand-ups from the Middle East joking about the racial fears of white people in a time of frenzied jingoism and Islamophobia. This makes for a satisfying retrospective, even if the film leaves out some of the more biting, nihilistic humor (Tom Tomorrow and Aaron McGruder comic strips, online memes about 9/11 trueers) that wouldn’t translate well to the big screen.
Although the humor of 9/11 and the Bush administration’s foreign policy spread into multiple genres, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert most visibly changed the comedy landscape during this era. Too early explains how The daily show, which Stewart has hosted since 1999, gained new credibility with young viewers when it found its political base and assumed a dry skepticism about the Iraq war and media consensus building. As comedian Scott Aukerman points out, the show invented the “montage of hypocrisy,” an often-copied gotcha device that highlights the tendency of politicians to openly contradict themselves. Then came The Colbert Report, a satire of expert programs that was added truthfulness to the national lexicon, a way to criticize the constant American diet of political falsehoods disguised as fact. When these programs first broke the conversation, they provided a counterbalance to the blind falconry addiction that has gripped much of the population, and at least they deserve credit for it. But it is worth asking why? And what happened after that?
Too early misses a larger context about which satirical news, one of the most dominant forms of comedy in the post-11th world, has in some ways increased the divide between red and blue states and possibly helped increase public confidence in the media to undermine. Satire and slant have anchored many Americans even further, splitting television into belligerent (if grinning) echo chambers, and likely contributed to the well-documented political polarization of the past 20 years. Any sense of unity through collective, cathartic laughter was short-lived; Remember, it took Bush less than a month to declare, “You are either with us or against us,” and most people chose a side. Though his comment referred to the war on terror, it encapsulated all sorts of cultural disputes at the turn of the millennium. With the line between news and entertainment blurred, a rogue gallery of reporter-personality hybrids arose across the major networks to preach to their respective choirs. As Leno said, “You don’t change anyone with comedy; you only reinforce what they already believe. “
The comedians interviewed in Too early use words like cure and Reassurance to describe the effects of early 9/11 humor and the (classically Freudian) case that jokes provided psychological relief to a distressed nation. As that humor evolved to do justice to the moment – to comment on topics like racial profiling – it became a channel for “social justice” and “social change,” says comedian Negin Farsad. The argument that 9/11 comedy worked first as escapism and then as social criticism is compelling, not least because, as the old saying goes, the best satire is to comfort the distressed and torment the comfortable.
But to overestimate the power of 9/11 comedy beyond the realm of culture would be misguided. Think of Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, when he confronted Bush and the media with their own incompetence. The performance cemented Colbert’s status as a folk hero, but did not influence politics or make any significant difference. To get a little justice, Stewart had to aggressively lobby Congress (as a citizen, not a television personality) for years to gain health care for injured and sick 9/11 victims. Even he seemed to understand the limits of political satire. A medieval court jester was allowed to humiliate his monarch, but he could not redistribute the crops. He couldn’t end a war.