The Delicate and Vital Role of Comedy After a Tragedy

Okay, this was a tough week for political comedy. If nothing else, it confirms something about the nature of comedy that we know deep down: it plays a major role in our healing process after national tragedies.

Immediately after something as disastrous as the shooting in Tucson happens, comedy just feels inappropriate. That makes sense. How could we be so insensitive as to laugh? That’s how it is until suddenly it’s the opposite, and laughing about that same event suddenly feels like a welcome relief. Even if we’re not conscious of it, we begin to demand laughter. When we laugh, does that mean the worst is over?

It’s not remarkable that we heal, but it’s interesting that together we know when it’s okay to turn to comedy, and it’s a little odd that we find comfort there. Normally, we wouldn’t describe our reason for enjoying comedy as comfort, but comedy might be more immediate and central to our healing than even our political leaders. It certainly is more important than memorials, or art, or, god forbid, poetry.

That’s a lot of pressure on comedians. We looked to Jon Stewart on Monday night to see how he would address the event. When he took it seriously, the reaction was mixed. Colbert’s take was a little braver. He also took the event seriously, as was still the mood, but he ended with a few-seconds clip of political overreactions, as if just to let us know that even if it wasn’t ready for TV, somewhere, out there, this was already funny. Like Marty McFly introducing heavy metal to 1955: “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet, but your kids are gonna love it.” (Of course Colbert was right in one respect: on Twitter, where ids can run unchecked, jokes mocking the political finger pointing began as quickly as the finger pointing itself.)

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So how do we know when it’s no longer too soon? Until recently, it was commonly accepted that the earliest jokes about any national tragedy were told on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. These were tasteless and were meant to be told “too soon” — by design they offend rather than soothe. This offensiveness was connected in part to the historical culture surrounding banking and finance, which could comfortably described as “male.” Its goal is pretty similar to transgressive or taboo-busting stand-up, where when something crosses the line, it’s funny almost as a dare. Being first to laugh at a tragedy, then, could be akin to an act of bravery. By pushing the boundaries of “too soon,” these jokes make it safe for the rest of us to laugh.

In 9/11’s wake, millions of Americans felt rallied — or were told they had been, anyhow — by President Bush’s bullhorn address at ground zero. As much as I wanted to be moved, I wasn’t one of them. I got my upsurge of patriotic defiance from another source — the famous 9/11 issue of The Onion, which rose to the almost unimaginable challenge of satirizing the attacks before the rubble stopped smoking. Under the circumstances, making jokes was heroic…

For those of us who are old enough, tragedies will forever be framed through the responses after September 11. Comedy stepped up, in defiance of the common wisdom of the time that “The Age of Irony Is Over.” Looking back at some of the reactions from that time, I find that the role comedy played almost came as a revelation to Americans who hadn’t foreseen how helpful it could be. Here’s a writer in the New York Times looking back at 9/11 from the lengthy distance of 2004:That issue of The Onion, he notes, was so admired it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. “People were blown away by this work,” a member of the nominating committee said.

The return of comedy in 2001 was hardly inevitable. When Will Ferrell picked up his George Bush impersonation on Saturday Night Live, its continued existence struck another New York Times’ critic as an example of “cynicism’s” stubborn persistence. (Not all comedy made it, of course. Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s That’s My Bush was canceled on Comedy Central amid the aftermath.)

Imagine what our world would be like if Will Ferrell just never came back as George W. Bush. If comedy didn’t return, could mourning ever end? We’ve already entered the moment when it’s okay to laugh about (some aspects) of last Saturday’s tragedy, but we are still in that in-between state. Slowly, what was inappropriate becomes necessary.

Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.

The Delicate and Vital Role of Comedy After a Tragedy