Welcome to the latest installment of Tragedy Plus Time. Each segment will focus on a particular ‘life crisis’ — sometimes globally tragic, sometimes more of a personal affair — and we’ll explore how many of the comedians we know and love have dealt with it.
If you were following any social media during the Boston bombings last month, you would have observed the global dialogue quickly shift from mundane chatter to the somber details of the attack. Concerns for safety, information about what had transpired, and speculation on the culprits behind it dominated the national conversation. Remarks about any other topic were deemed callous and inappropriate. Especially jokes, on or off topic.
Comedians are in a precarious position during times like these. A good comic has to know when levity is appropriate, and what’s within the realm of good taste. Of course, nothing says they actually have to be funny. After the bombing, Patton Oswalt wrote a serious, powerful message on his Facebook wall that resonated strongly with people. But there will come a time when everyone will want to laugh again.
Laughter literally began in our species as a gesture of shared relief at the passing of danger. And after a tragic event like a terrorist attack, or the threat of an oncoming war, our lives haven’t returned to normal until we’re able laugh again. So we turn our attention away from the misery of the 24/7 news cycle and we look for a reason to smile. Enter the comedian - formerly powerless in the face of despair, now an invaluable resource on the road to recovery.
We’re going to look at how five artists handled themselves in the aftermath (or in a few cases, the currentmath) of a globally tragic event. While wars and terrorist attacks are obviously less personal than the topics we’ve tackled before, the reactions from each of the artists touched upon today are still very much in line with their specific comedic style.
Mel Brooks Turns Hitler’s Power Against Him
Hitler’s reign as dictator and ruler of the Nazi party marked a dark period of human history. He became the face of hatred and intolerance, and the deaths of millions came from his will. But the Hitler legacy has transformed over the years. Though history books may tell one side of the story, in popular culture the legacy of the man with the world’s most recognizable mustache has gone from evil genius to buffoonish bigot. This is thanks in no small part to the efforts of Mel Brooks.
Before Brooks became the well known personality he is today, the 86-year-old auteur was actually enlisted to fight in World War II. Though he didn’t engage in direct combat, Brooks still managed to turn the tables on the Nazis in his own signature way:
Towards the end of the war, after Germany’s defeat at the Battle of the Bulge, Nazi soldiers set up a loudspeaker to blare propaganda at Brooks and his fellow G.I.’s. In retaliation, Brooks set up his own loudspeaker and “serenaded” Hitler’s elite forces with a boisterous version of Al Jolson’s “Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye.” Brooks probably realized the irony of forcing the Third Reich’s troops to listen to a popular American tune, especially one sung by a Jewish performer, over and over again.
After leaving the war Brooks set off to begin his career as a multi-talented EGOT-winning writer/performer/director/lyricist. In the early 1960’s he had the idea of putting together a musical comedy about Adolf Hitler, and this premise eventually found itself as part of the plot of The Producers. At the time this idea was rather unconventional, even though there had never been a more worthy subject. Even as a satire (the play involving Hitler is a play — a purposefully BAD play — within a movie) coming from a Jewish writer, major studios and exhibitors balked at the subject matter, and Brooks had to go through an independent distributor and have the movie released as an art house film.
The rest of the story is history. The Producers was an underground smash hit, and it led to revivals and a long lasting life on home video and won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. It went on to be one of the highly acclaimed Broadway musicals of all time. High on Hitler-bashing success, Brooks would go on to portray or write the dictator several more times in his work — including Blazing Saddles, a David Frost comedy special called Peeping Times, and a 1983 remake of the film To Be Or Not To Be, where Brooks can be seen enthusiastically belting out “The Hitler Rap”:
“Hitler must have had a magnetic attractive force, like a rock star he used his voice to spellbind umpteen thousands of listeners. So it’s only fitting when comic actors make him the limelight hog of world history. We take away from him the holy seriousness that always surrounded him and protected him like a cordon … It is an inverted seizure of power. For many years Hitler was the most powerful man in the world and almost destroyed us. To possess this power and turn it against him — it is simply alluring.”
Brooks found a powerful weapon in comedy, something that has resonated with many of his fans. By reducing Hitler and the Nazi Party to a stereotype/punchline (an inappropriate thing to do against anyone but Nazis, pirates and of course, hipsters) he’s posthumously tarnished the name of one of history’s most reviled men:
Gilbert Gottfried Rips The Bandage Off
The events of 9/11 were considered so tragic that, at the time, some speculated it was the end of comedy as we knew it (it was the end of irony at the very least). Of course, this was nonsense. People needed to laugh more than ever. The comedians who first came back — notably, Jon Stewart, David Letterman, The Onion, and SNL — all did so tastefully, opening with pieces of heartfelt commentary and relatable jokes about our collective worries and fears. Their carefully crafted comedic work is well documented and revered. So instead of talking about those guys, I’m going to talk about the comedian who took a much less sympathetic approach.
Three weeks after 9/11, Gilbert Gottfried got on stage during a Friars Club Roast of Hugh Hefner and early in his set made the following joke:
“I have to leave early tonight, I have to fly out to L.A. I couldn’t get a direct flight, I have to make a stop at the Empire State Building.”
It was the first truly dark joke publicly made about the terrorist attacks. The audience responded with boos and hisses, and someone shouted out: “too soon!” which effectively became the true punchline to the bit. No comedian in history had lost a room as quickly as he had. At that point, Gottfried made a slight adjustment to his routine and, rather than returning to topic of Hugh Hefner, told a legendarily raunchy Aristocrats joke, filled with incest and bestiality. Over the course of the nearly ten minute joke, he successfully won the audience back, which is impressive in its own right, and proves that raunchiness is timeless.
So why did Gottfried tell the 9/11 joke, with the tragedy so fresh on everyone’s mind? He knew it was tasteless and crude, but he claimed he wanted the (dis)honor of telling the first bad joke. More than that though, he saw it as the ultimate act of defiance to the terrorists:
“I always thought — you know, that moment of me on stage telling the first September 11th joke — I always thought that should be sent to Al Qaeda [to] say: ‘hey, you did a sneak attack, killed three thousand of us, and you know what we’re doing now? We’re laughing about it. We’re cracking up about it. That’s what you did.”
Gottfried stands by his ‘Tragedy Minus Time’ formula and did a similar thing a decade later in 2011 when he made a joke on twitter about the devastating earthquake that struck Japan shortly after it occurred. This time he wasn’t quite able to win his audience back, and he was eventually fired from his long standing role as the voice of the Aflac duck (Aflac does most of their business in Japan). If you’re wondering whether or not this has changed his attitude towards the timing of his jokes, this video should give you some idea:
Dan Harmon Holds A Comedic Town Hall Meeting
There is only the thinnest of filters between Dan Harmon’s mouth and his brain, which has led to some amazingly candid moments along with some very emotional tirades. He wears his heart on his sleeve in all of his work, especially during live performances when he doesn’t have a chance to edit his words. His incessant drive to entertain comes from a deep-rooted need to belong and feel loved. There are plenty of other writers and comedians who feel this way, but Harmon will bluntly inform you of this fact on a regular basis without a hint of shame.
On April fifteenth of this year, mere hours after two explosions at the Boston marathon had killed 3 people and injured dozens more, Harmon stepped out on stage to host his regularly scheduled live comedy show Harmontown. He’d been performing the show for small audiences for years, and it recently had become big enough for its own tour and podcast. Harmontown, like Community (Harmon’s most well known creation) is a show that plays around with its own format on a regular basis, adjusting to meet the needs of the often last minute, thrown together ‘agenda’ every week.
After about fifteen minutes of purposefully mundane talking points (“we’ll get to the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11 soon — but first, e-cigarettes!”) Harmon delved into the shocking tragedy that had just transpired and — with the help of his guests and several audience members — managed to pull off a show paired with a delicate balance of levity and introspection. It’s a fascinating time capsule and well worth a listen.
Describing the specifics won’t do the episode any justice, but the topics of racism, tasteless jokes (which are both made and subsequently analyzed) and our undying need to make sense of the world all come together in a thoughtful, effortless way. Harmon’s openly ponders his place in the world, and whether or not he even has a say in the matter:
“The fucked up thing is that when you’re a fat, rich, white, 40-year-old, video game lovin’, Wheat Thin eatin’, vodka drinkin’, Community creatin’, hangin’ out, doing your show-in’ guy, the only time these conversations happen is when this stuff happens. And it’s when this stuff happens that you think that exact thought that I do, that I go: ‘Ugh, I wonder what’s going on on the planet and why this [isn’t] a bigger deal’ and if I chime with that sentiment at that point I couldn’t be a bigger hypocrite because it’s like, I had my chance to give a fuck about whether people lived or died, and I didn’t.”
Regardless of what may or may not be appropriate, Harmon proudly acknowledges that Harmontown is a place where like-minded individuals can still get together and have a good time, even in the wake of such an awful tragedy. And the show ends with the group playing Dungeons and Dragons together live on stage, as they do every week. The final few minutes of the episode feature co-host Jeff Davis’ character having sex with a giant comatose spider while Lady In Red plays in the background, a final symbolic gesture of defiance against the terrorists of the world.
Trey Parker & Matt Stone Refuse To Waver On Their Comedic Credo
The concept of comedic censorship seemed like a distant memory by the turn of the century. Even post-9/11, when comedians like Gilbert Gottfried would make seemingly tasteless inappropriate jokes, the reaction of his audience was all the retribution that was needed. It’s one of the universal laws of comedy: if you’re going to risk offending your audience, you’d better make sure you’re funny enough to justify it.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone have put this theory to the test time and time again over the course of their careers. The duo’s first collaboration — an animated short called The Spirit of Christmas — featured a fight between Jesus Christ and Frosty the Snowman, and in a later updated version, Jesus Christ and Santa Claus. The violent, potentially sacrilegious short ultimately put them on the map and led to the creation of South Park, the Comedy Central series that made them famous.
The show became known for its topicality, and Parker and Stone have never hesitated to let their opinions be known. The first episode of South Park to air after 9/11 was called ‘Osama Bin Laden Has Farty Pants’ and featured the show’s resident child sociopath Eric Cartman going to Afghanistan and subjecting Osama Bin Laden to all sorts of demeaning cartoonish torture, eventually concluding with a not-so-cartoonish bullet to Bin Laden’s head. This particular episode was lauded as much more cathartic than controversial, but it was only the beginning of their artistic foray into the war on terror.
In April 2006 Parker and Stone created a two-part episode entitled ‘Cartoon Wars,’ that addressed the issue of fear-based censorship (as well as their disdain for the writing on Family Guy). The story involved the country at large fretting over Family Guy airing an episode in which the prophet Muhammad was set to appear. This was around the time a Danish cartoonist had been murdered by extremists for his drawing of Muhammad (which is considered offensive to some Muslims) in a daily paper. Parker and Stone’s were commenting on the ridiculousness of making one exception to free speech. To further hammer home their point, the episode also featured uncensored scenes depicting Jesus Christ defecating on George W. Bush and the American flag.
The speech Kyle delivers to the television executive (at 16:38 in the full episode) is a powerful argument against surrendering to the threat of violence and the slippery slope of fear-based censorship. Despite the irony of the situation, Comedy Central balked at what they perceived to be a real threat and censored the episode themselves, making the story that much more relevant. The controversy was further heightened when Parker and Stone revisited the topic in their 200th & 201st episodes, once again centering the story around Muhammad making a public appearance (they also pointed out that they had actually depicted Muhammad on the show many years before, without any problems). This time, the two received actual death threats. As a result, all images of Muhammad were once again removed by Comedy Central (references to Muhammad’s name, along with other selections of dialogue were actually bleeped out), and to this day the episodes are no longer available to watch online.
Despite having their work censored, South Park became part of the global dialogue on the issue of free speech. It’s a testament to Parker and Stone’s abilities as writers as well as their stubborn resolve that they were able to cause such a powerful reaction on the same show that features a magical talking piece of poop.
Stanley Kubrick Finds There’s More Truth In Comedy During The Cold War
Compared to the many other artists in this series, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick may not be known as much of a comedian. But he belongs on this list as much as if not more than anyone else, having created one of the greatest comedic responses of all time to one of the most deadly serious situations in human history.
In the early 1960’s Kubrick set out with the vague idea to make a thriller based on a nuclear accident. He did extensive research on the topic and eventually purchased the rights to a Cold War thriller called Red Alert. By all accounts, he wanted to make a serious film, but Kubrick found the subject matter impossible not to satire:
“My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay. I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question.”
The constant, imminent threat and the concept of mutually assured destruction was so ludicrous that, even with the stakes being as high as they were, Kubrick felt there was simply no other way to put it all on display. Thus Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was born.
The film is truth in comedy (or perhaps comedy in truth?) heightened to the nth degree. And the truth goes even deeper than that. Unbeknownst to audiences (who were even less privy then to details of wartime proceedings than we are now), the movie was eerily accurate to what was going on in the world at the time. Though the possibility of nuclear war has never completely gone away, it has never been as close to becoming a reality as it was during the height of the Cold War, which was not-so-coincidentally right when this film was released. Many of the details from the movie were speculated on but much closer to reality than was assumed. From a 2004 NY Times retrospective:
Those in the know watched Dr. Strangelove amused, like everyone else, but also stunned. Daniel Ellsberg, who later leaked the Pentagon Papers, was a RAND analyst and a consultant at the Defense Department when he and a mid-level official took off work one afternoon in 1964 to see the film. Mr. Ellsberg recently recalled that as they left the theater, he turned to his colleague and said, “That was a documentary!”
Kubrick’s film was ultimately heralded as one of the greatest satires of all time and stands alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of his true masterpieces. Also it’s legitimately funny. Laughter is the ultimate release; it’s the opposite of fear. What better response is there to the end of the world as we know it?