TOPICS > Nation

What’s So Funny?

December 31, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


JAY LENO, NBC’s “Tonight Show”: Well, the latest word is Osama bin Laden is now believed to be in Pakistan. They think he’s been in Pakistan for the past ten days. Why is it every time Geraldo goes looking for something, it’s not there, you know? (Laughter)

TERENCE SMITH: It took a while, but Americans are laughing again.

TINA FEY, “Saturday Night Live”: One of Osama bin Laden’s estranged wives is claiming that rather than be captured, bin Laden has always planned to kill himself on television. Of course, she added, “he’s also been telling me he’s going to put up that ceiling fan in our cave for like two years, so I’ll believe it when I see it.”

JOHN STEWART, “The Daily Show”: Steve.


TERENCE SMITH: Even sensitive subjects are once again fair game.

“DAILY SHOW” CORRESPONDENT: And I must stress this, there is absolutely no need to panic. (Laughter)

TERENCE SMITH: Laughter has finally emerged from the humor blackout that followed September 11. That first week, there were national moments of silence; the late night comics turned serious; the New Yorker cover went black, and for the second time in its history, the magazine carried no cartoons. Nothing seemed funny.

BOB MANKOFF: It was like you were sick and had some disease and you couldn’t eat sweets. You couldn’t do it.

TERENCE SMITH: Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor of The New Yorker, who describes himself as a licensed humorist, said he and his colleagues were stunned by the collapse of the World Trade towers, which he used to see from his office window.

BOB MANKOFF: We felt like that part of our brain, which sort of keeps us alive, like a lobotomy had been performed. Nothing was funny about that, of course, and not even in a sick way.

TERENCE SMITH: Madeleine Smithberg is executive producer of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” on Comedy Central, which suspended production for eight nights after September 11.

MADELEINE SMITHBERG, Executive Producer, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”: To actually produce comedy, you have to draw from some sort of an internal place of creativity. And when that has been obliterated, it’s next to impossible.

TERENCE SMITH: But as the dust cleared in downtown New York, so did the dark psychological cloud. And now, it seems the old adage that comedy equals tragedy plus time is proving true. Cartoonists began to sketch again. Bob Mankoff draws as he commutes.

BOB MANKOFF: By the time I hit the city, I better have something.

TERENCE SMITH: Cartoons reappeared in The New Yorker a week later, poking fun at the new realities, like airline security. This cartoon reads, “We’ll need to declaw the cat.” And shaken comedians returned to air.

DAVID LETTERMAN, CBS’ “The Late Show”: I wasn’t sure that I should be doing a television show, because for 20 years, we’ve been in the city making fun of everything; making fun of the city, making fun of my hair, making fun of Paul… Well…

JON STEWART: There were no jobs available for a man in the fetal position under his desk crying… (Laughter ) …Which I gladly would have taken. So I… So I come back here.

TERENCE SMITH: And started to make fun, as well, of the day’s headlines.

DAVID LETTERMAN: The number one question on the application for doorman at Osama bin Laden’s cave complex: “May we pay you in sand?” There you have it.

TERENCE SMITH: In a break from the usual late night fare, Letterman tempered his tone on some nights, including guests such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

DAVID LETTERMAN: Thank you so much.

TERENCE SMITH: After reprising the war, though, even Friedman drew a laugh.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I think that we will not feel, you know, this is over until bin Laden is caught and brought back dead or dead.

DAVID LETTERMAN: Right. (Laughter and applause)

TERENCE SMITH: And ordinary Americans found relief.

WOMAN: I’ve been to too many funerals, so I just want to… You know, just laugh and have fun now.

MAN: After a couple of weeks, I definitely kind of tried to relax and find some humor.

MAZ JOBRANI, Comedian: I’m an American citizen, but I was born in Iran. People come up to me and go, “Maz, man, where are you from?” I look them right in the eye and I tell them then, “I’m Italian.” “Hey, all right. Fugged abouddit!”

TERENCE SMITH: Three Middle Eastern comedians in Los Angeles, dubbed the Arabian Knights, have found humor amid the horror. Egyptian-born Ahmed Ahmed, Iranian Maz Jobrani and Palestinian-American Aron Kader, while poking fun at their ethnicity, say people are more attentive and receptive to their triple bill at the Comedy Store.

AHMED AHMED, Comedian: Went to the baggage claim, checked my bags in, and the baggage guys said, “Are these your bags, sir?” I said, “Yes, they are.” He said, “Did you pack them yourself?” I said, “Yes, I did.” They arrested me. (Laughter)

TERENCE SMITH: And they are also laughing on the freewheeling Internet, where humor is depicted as a patriotic duty. At the Portal About Dot-com, Daniel Kurtzman tracks the greatest hits.

“COLIN POWELL” CARTOON: Come Mr. Taliban turn over bin Laden

VOICES: Colin Powell gonna bomb his home…

TERENCE SMITH: This KOMP-Las Vegas radio station remake of Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” was reportedly downloaded and passed around via e-mail tens of millions of times. On cable television, “The Daily Show” normally mocks the media for its material, but that seemed implausible in the grave new world after September 11. News organizations were in the large part playing it straight.

DAN RATHER, CBS News: Terror by mail.

TERENCE SMITH: But then came the days of non-stop reporting on the anthrax scare.

MADELEINE SMITHBERG: They were overselling it. It was sort of like the bat phone had rung and we were back in our long underwear and capes and sliding down the pole and off to make America laugh again.

TERENCE SMITH: You were back in business.

MADELEINE SMITHBERG: We were back in business.

WILL FERRELL as PRESIDENT BUSH: I propose a tax cut that will be retroactive, which I think means you will get money back… (Laughter) …That glows in the dark.

TERENCE SMITH: Prior to September 11, President Bush was the butt of a lot of comic material. But in the aftermath of the attacks, those jokes didn’t seem funny or appropriate.

JAY LENO: Now this is my own catalogue. This is the Jay Leno catalogue of George Bush jokes I can’t do anymore. Yeah, these are all…

TERENCE SMITH: Cartoonist Garry Trudeau reportedly pulled several sharp-edged “Doonesbury” strips about George W. Bush. And even “The Daily Show’s” consistently irreverent tune changed. Madeleine Smithberg:

MADELEINE SMITHBERG: President Bush, for us, especially during his campaigning, was a wonderful font of material, some of it, which required very little writing on our part. He was not the smartest man in the world, but now, he still may not be the smartest man in the world, but we want him to be… We hope that he is in a way that before didn’t feel as urgent.

REPORTER: What did you think of your portrayal on “Saturday Night Live”?

DONALD RUMSFELD, Secretary of Defense: When I want to discuss “Saturday Night Live,” I’ll bring it up. (Laughter)

TERENCE SMITH: The President’s cabinet members are all fair game. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other cabinet officers have become irresistible source material for “Saturday Night Live” comics.

DARRELL HAMMOND as SECRETARY RUMSFELD: Although the campaign continues to meet with success, let me remind you, as I’ve done many times before, it’s only part of the larger war on terror.

DARRELL HAMMOND as ATTORNEY GENERAL JOHN ASHCROFT: Let me say this, if we allow the terrorists to make us afraid of their imminent attacks, attacks that will probably happen tomorrow, or maybe in three weeks, or later today… (Laughter)

TERENCE SMITH: Attorney General John Ashcroft has tried to be a sport about his caricature.

JOHN ASHCROFT, Attorney General: Well, just as the American people have had to accept new challenges, I must now accept that Darrell Hammond does a reasonably accurate impression of me. (Laughter)

BOB MANKOFF: One of its purposes is to sort a humble the mighty so that we can think about the things they’re doing.

MAN: Might be funny. Let’s put it in maybe.

TERENCE SMITH: Every week Mankoff, staff writer Hendrik Hertzberg and editor David Remnick meet to select the cartoons for upcoming issues. Many now focus on our post-9-11 foibles.

BOB MANKOFF: All the cartoons were about us, about us as a people. Irony is always used and satire is used as a corrective to our own behavior. It steps you back and says, “isn’t this a little foolish?” So, you know, there might be a military guy saying, “of course I don’t want overkill, but not at the cost of underkill,” because, you know, you’re sort of like scoping out what the military, you know, is involved in.

TERENCE SMITH: Rather than heralding the death of irony, Smithberg maintains that the current crisis is providing some of the best material ever.

MADELEINE SMITHBERG: People are thanking us for what we’ve been doing, because it’s allowed them a place where they can actually laugh a little bit about something that is so upsetting and so horrible that it’s given them a sense of relief.

TERENCE SMITH: Perhaps that is the best tonic of all.