Comedy After 9/11: Sincerity and Irony

Comedy felt frivolous, and in some cases downright insensitive in the weeks after September 11, 2001. This was not lost on television’s funny men, who gave solemn monologues with knotted throats and fists, asking for forgiveness for their chosen profession. In an effort to explain the serious sincerity of his own reflections and those of other hosts, Jon Stewart suggested, “It’s something that unfortunately we do for ourselves so that we can drain whatever abscess is in our hearts. So that we can move on.” David Letterman similarly asked for the “patience and indulgence” of his audience and explained, “If we are going to continue to do shows, I just need to hear myself talk for a few minutes.”

In other words, laughter could be the best medicine, sure. But it needed to be taken with a healthy dose of reflection about comedy’s essential purpose.

Today, these monologues strike me as curious artifacts of the immediate post-9/11 moment. To hear two of the most sarcastic satirists on television give thoughtful, tearful reflections on the emotional underpinnings of their craft — and on their faith in America — certainly provided enough evidence to support one interpretation of Roger Rosenblatt’s famous pronouncement of irony’s death in Time. We had entered a new age, of as-yet indeterminate length, in which sincerity would rule as the predominant sentiment.

Read one way, Rosenblatt seemed to be suggesting that sneering cynicism needed to be replaced by renewed vigor and impassioned commitment to one’s beliefs. At the very least, Stewart and Letterman exposed the depth of their genuine investment in the patriotic ideals of a democratic society, usually the target of their ridicule and the source of punch lines. They gave us an insight into the abiding affection that good comics have for their subjects, and seemed to gesture toward the idea that comedy always has origins in sincerity. Stewart hinted that The Daily Show would draw more directly from this well of goodwill. “Our show has changed,” he said. “I don’t doubt that. What it’s become, I don’t know.” In the moment, invoking Martin Luther King Jr. and talking about America’s reasons for optimism, it almost sounds like Stewart wanted to provide regular reminders of the patriotic underpinnings of his humor.

But the target of Rosenblatt’s argument was something more like irony of postmodernism, not the irony of ironists. We throw around the term “irony” all the time, and it has become a kind of cliché that we almost always use it incorrectly. One of the things lost in the last decade is the original sense of Rosenblatt’s use of the word in his article, and the implications that a more precise reading of it has for an analysis of how comedy responded to 9/11 (and maybe how it has changed since). “For some 30 years,” Rosenblatt said, “the good folks in charge of America’s intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously.” He didn’t mean irony in its everyday sense — the irony of political comedians, satirists, The Onion, Saturday Night Live (sometimes), or teenage girls across America — but rather attacked irony as a philosophical stance with respect to the question of Big (Really Big) Truths like America, Freedom, God, Democracy, and the Internet. When it came to something like the essential (or, God forbid…divine) existence of any of these things, postmodernists rolled their eyes in a kind of collective “Give me a break.” Those skeptical of the postmodern stance balked because in the absence of any absolutes it gets kind of tricky to figure out how to talk about one’s beliefs without sounding folksy or un-hip. Or in Rosenblatt’s words, “The ironists, seeing through everything, made it difficult for anyone to see anything.”

Anyone who doubts the real-world consequences of this development need look no further than the Axis of Evil nonsense and the exploitation of patriotism during the Bush years, and the apotheosis of its opposite in the not-so-vaguely cultish Hope and Change rhetoric of the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. In the hands of the postmoderns, irony was supposed to be a defense against anyone using absolute truths to justify things like war or mass hugging. Irony was supposed to take the teeth out of claims like “America is the greatest country in the world,” not necessarily because they should feel untrue to people, but because when shouted loudly enough they are used to deceive and manipulate. Rosenblatt celebrated irony’s death because to him it marked the rise of a new political sincerity — one in which we were allowed once more to believe in bogeyman absolutes. But that very political sincerity proved very insalubrious to a great number of people. It arguably exacerbated America’s partisan schisms and twisted our politics into something like a parody of itself.

Put another way, just when we needed irony to arm ourselves against onslaught of political insanity, it died.

Thankfully irony as comedy — irony in the sense that we normally mean irony — simply took a brief vacation. The Onion came back on September 26, 2001 with anissue built around the theme: “Holy Fucking Shit: Attack on America.” The publication avoided cries of “Too soon!” by poking gentle fun at our own sincere efforts to make ourselves and each other feel better after 9/11. Here’s a bit from one of the cleverest articles, “Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake”:

Having already donated blood, mailed a check to the Red Cross, and sent a letter of thanks to the New York Fire Department, Pearson was aimlessly wandering from room to room in her apartment when the idea of creating the confectionery stars and stripes came to her.

The Onion proved that it was possible to ironize our own sincere (and upon inspection kind of silly and a little pathetic-feeling), attempts to get through the terrible sense of helplessness. At the same time, an article like “Hijackers Surprised to find Selves in Hell,” expressed a sentiment so purely — almost ecstatically — ironic that it could stand on its own as an assertion of the need for irony as a comedic disposition:

“I was promised I would spend eternity in Paradise, being fed honeyed cakes by 67 virgins in a tree-lined garden, if only I would fly the airplane into one of the Twin Towers,” said Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers of American Airlines Flight 11, between attempts to vomit up the wasps, hornets, and live coals infesting his stomach. “But instead, I am fed the boiling feces of traitors by malicious, laughing Ifrit. Is this to be my reward for destroying the enemies of my faith?”

What could be more ironic than finding oneself in hell despite promises of eternal salvation? And, at the same time, what form of expression other than irony could make it possible to so gleefully relish the pain of the perpetrators of 9/11? Here irony provides catharsis — an outlet for violence and revenge that would find darker and much more consequential expressions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

That same week, Saturday Night Live returned with Reese Witherspoon as host and Rudy Giuliani as a special guest. The show kicked off with Lorne Michaels and newly crowned America’s Mayor on stage. “Can we be funny?” Michaels asked, to which Giuliani responded, “Why start now?” This quick exchange offers important insight into the relationship between comedy and politics in the few weeks after 9/11. It’s significant because Michaels (a kind of metonym for televised irony) is asking permission from a politician (Giuliani similarly acts as a concurrent metonym for New York, and politics more generally) to get back to the business of humor. It’s significant precisely because it again drives home the weirdness of the immediate post-9/11 moment, in which the political satirists asked the sincere politicians for permission to be funny. (A more cynical person would say that it reminds us of the broader control of humorists, and speech in general, by those with political power. But I’m not that cynical).

Irony didn’t die on 9/11, but it found a strange new bedfellow in sincerity. I don’t think it’s surprising that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held a totally-sincere-but-still-totally-ironic political rally last year. I don’t think it’s surprising that the post-9/11 years have seen the rise of Judd Apatow’s sincere-but-bumbling leading men, or that Louis CK’s over-the-top sincerity about masturbation/race/sex/love/divorce/children is so popular. I think we start getting into the realm of the loony when people start drawing direct lines between individual comics and 9/11. But there’s no doubt that those last few weeks in September 2001 shook up the relation between sincerity and irony in a way that affected the comedy that followed it.

Regardless, it sure felt good when comics finally get back to the business of making jokes.

A-J Aronstein teaches writing at the University of Chicago and has written about 9/11 and Post-9/11 Literature for Post45 Contemporaries. He lives on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

Comedy After 9/11: Sincerity and Irony