9/11 Humor


too soon

9/11 humor is black comedy or off-color humor that aims to make light of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. A number of scholars have studied the ways in which humor has been used to deal with the trauma of the event. Researcher Bill Ellis found jokes about the attacks from Americans the day afterwards, and sociologist Giselinde Kuipers 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.

An early public attempt at 9/11 humor was made by Gilbert Gottfried just a few weeks after the attacks. During a comedy roast at the Friars Club his 9/11 gags ellicited angry shouts of ‘too soon.’ Gottfried improvised and performed ‘The Aristocrats’ routine (a famously vulgar joke), which got great applause from the crowd.

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 two weeks later with a special edition devoted to the attacks. When the issue was released, the newspaper staff felt trepidation over making light of such a tragic event. ‘Everyone thought this would be our last issue in print,’ according to one staff writer. However, the paper was quickly inundated with comments from readers, the vast majority of which were positive.

One of the first 9/11 jokes made by a major American comedian was told by Joan Rivers 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.

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 old him can play hero and stop the terrorist attacks. This causes George W. Bush not to be re-elected, meaning a Second Civil War starts that leads to nuclear attacks on the Eastern Seaboard. A critic for ‘Time’ 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.’

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 broadcast in 2007, contained an extended scene which was removed from the episode as first broadcast. In the deleted scene, while travelling 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!’

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