“I have a flight to California,” Gilbert Gottfried announced at a Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner just weeks after 9/11. “I can’t get a direct flight—they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.”
“Too soon!” shouted someone in the audience [H4].
But when would it not be too soon to joke about 9/11? Or to make jokes at all? “We have to be cautious and sensitive,” said Jay Leno, who shut down production of his show for a week, as did Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien. David Letterman was the first of the late-night hosts to return to the air, but in a solemn mood and with Dan Rather as his guest, who thrice broke into tears.
There are those who say that some things are too terrible to be joked about. Nonsense. If Jews can make jokes about the Holocaust—and they do make jokes about the Holocaust—then Americans can make jokes about 9/11.
The FDNY’s least favorite song? “It’s Raining Men.” Silver lining to the destruction of the World Trade Center? Some great new unobstructed views in downtown Manhattan. When does a Pentagon have six sides? When it intersects a plane.
It’s not easy to make an event like 9/11 seem funny. And a decade after the event, it certainly isn’t “too soon.” But is it too late? The time for using humor to keep 9/11 in proportion is probably past. And the harvest of jokes it left behind is a meager one.
Perhaps the best of them, fittingly, is a knock-knock joke. (Why fittingly? Because “knock knock” is the briefest possible précis of what happened to the Twin Towers.)
“You said you’d never forget!”
Jim Holt is the author of Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes.