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Not Funny: The Rules of Humor Changed on Sept. 11

Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 18, 2001 9:38 AM

The time, for all those keeping score, was 5 days 2 hours 8 minutes and 1 second. That was the hiatus between the arrival of the first plane at the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and the arrival of the first known attempt at Internet humor on the subject.

I stress "attempt." It was feeble, and mercifully off-point: Just a list of anagrams of the name Osama bin Laden. ("Is a banal demon." "I am a bland nose." "No! A mad lesbian." "Animals on a bed.") For the anonymous individual who scattershotted this item across a bleeding America, it seemed almost a hiccup, some impulse that simply had to come out. He or she -- I'm guessing he -- was uncomfortable enough about it to have appended a verse that he may or may not have known was by Melville, written in grief and anger after Lincoln's assassination:

There is sobbing of the strong

And a pall upon the land

But the people in their weeping

Bare the iron hand.

Beware the people weeping

When they bare the iron hand.

So, no, the e-mail doesn't really qualify as humor.

And even it was five days in the making. For gallows humor, five days is an eternity; hours after the Challenger explosion, phones were crackling with bad jokes.

No, we don't need sick humor, not now or ever. The problem is, we are finding no humor, anywhere.

When will we be able to laugh again?

Not now, says the New Yorker. This week's edition will arrive denuded of cartoons, for the first time since Hiroshima. Not yet, says the Onion, the wickedly irreverent weekly newspaper parody, which has canceled its next edition; punch up the Web site and you see stuff from what seems like an impossibly quainter time: "Expanding Universe Could Allow for More Than 750 Quadrillion Blockbuster Locations"; "Sci-Fi Fans Argue the Better of Two As-Yet-Unreleased Films."

Leno has not yet been back on the air. "The Daily Show" has gone to reruns for the week. Craig Kilborn decided to return last night; Letterman, too, and if you wondered whether he was going to try to be funny, you need look no further than the promos. Featured guest: Dan Rather.

No one's aiming for humor. No one's in the mood, and who can blame them?

I can, maybe. We need it.

The day after the bombing, the editors of SheckyMagazine.com, a Web site for stand-up comics, advised its readers to go out there and entertain: "Some comics have expressed an understandable reticence to 'tell our little jokes' at such a heavy time. We would advise these comics to regain perspective. 'Our little jokes' have the power to enable people to escape the horror."

Most comedy clubs, however, have stayed shuttered.

It's too bad. When people are filled with grief, they need to cry. When they are filled with fear, they need to laugh.

No one ever explained this better than humorist Dave Barry, and never was his explanation more apt than it is today: "A sense of humor is a measurement of the extent to which we realize we are trapped in a world almost totally devoid of reason. Laughter is how we express the anxiety we feel at this."

We'll laugh again, because it is our nature. You can't stop it, really. I see some people laughing together, in little seditious knots. They are laughing on the street, and where I work. Not at the horrors, of course: They're laughing at small ironies, stupid dogs, human sillinesses, the same things they've always laughed at. Sanctioned, public laughter will surely follow.

But it won't be the same. Like so much else in America, the rules changed last Tuesday.

I am looking at the current edition of American Enterprise magazine. On page 11 is a cartoon of a man and women in their Manhattan apartment, watching a politician on TV. The man says: "Everything with this guy is 'America this' and 'America that.' What about those of us who live in New York City?" The issue is dated Oct./Nov. in that bizarre and occasionally embarrassing convention in which magazines postdate their issues to increase shelf life. But you know it was put together before Sept. 11.

Not funny, now.

Last week The Post decided to publish as scheduled its Sunday humor contest, the Style Invitational, which I edit. This feature is not famous for its political sensitivity, but this weekend I found myself culling from the results any entries that suggested any cognitive weaknesses in the president of the United States.

Not funny, now.

I just received a second bit of Internet e-mail, a second attempt at disaster humor. It purported to be an illustration of a design for a new World Trade Center. This new design is not two towers, but five. They looked like fingers, the middle one stuck up much higher than the rest.

Still not funny. But getting closer, maybe. A good sign.

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