September 11th 2001. American Airlines Flight 11 smashes into the World Trade Centre’s north tower and thousands of horrified New Yorkers are smothered by layer upon layer of toxic dust. As burning rubble falls and TV news crews clamber through gory debris in instinctual attempts to interview, the world watches on in slack-jawed incredulity.
A thousand questions spill from Western mouths: “Who could have organised an atrocity on such a scale?”; “Why wasn’t America prepared?”; and “Would it be inappropriate to still go to Jongleurs tonight? It’s just that I’ve got tickets for that Mitch Benn and I hear he’s quite good”.
It would have been a strange evening to be in a comedy club; to have bathed in the primordial soup that would become the awkward clowning epoch of post-9/11 comedy. Simon Munnery once said that people shouldn’t worry about being modern as that’s “surely the one thing you can’t avoid”. Is the same true of post-9/11 comedy? Is simply existing in the wake of a terrorist attack enough licence to fly that flag or does one have to absorb a certain amount of the zeitgeist in order to qualify? Political climate has always had a knock-on effect on comedy: the 70s brought the satire boom, the 80s gave us alternative comedy and the 90s secreted ‘the new rock and roll’. The 00s, it seems, ushers in the post-9/11 wave: the wave of the new satire.
Among the doomed passengers of Flight 11 was David Angell, co-creator of feel-good television sitcoms, Cheers and Frasier. It was almost as though his presence had been arranged by some higher force in order to provide a symbolic passing of flames in comedy history. The comfortable, moralising sitcom would no longer suffice in a West where death could strike so spontaneously and on such a devastating scale: the world had been shocked and it would take more than Seinfeld’s stories of missing jackets and “goofy-looking” Pez dispensers to get under America’s skin again.
Getting under people’s skin is what good comedy does: even the most inoffensive comedian or conservative sitcom will point out the absurdities of an ideology, tradition or policy. The Hopi Indian clowns (mentioned sometimes by Stewart Lee who, tired of the comedy circuit, went in search of the clowns so that he might experience the primal roots of his craft) are perfect embodiments of comedy’s subversive nature. It is their job as quasi-shamanic community figureheads to attend serious events such as weddings or funerals and to parody them in playfully vulgar ways in order to remind all in attendance not to take things so seriously. The anthropologist, Emory Sekaquaptewa reports an instance in which a troupe of Hopi clowns serving the mourners at a funeral went so far as to throw the corpse from the roof of a nearby building. He writes that “It took the people by surprise. But then everybody laughed”.
In order to survive after the heart of Western civilisation had been attacked so brutally and to continue to function in a suddenly radically politicised world, would comedy stick to its popguns and continue to take leaves from the Hopi? Should it lob the mangled corpses of 9/11 victims from the rooftops? Or perhaps it should just pay its respects and address nice things for a change?
It opted for the latter. For almost three weeks.
The American comedian, Gilbert Gottfried was probably the first person to publicly tackle 9/11 and prick the balloon of America’s mourning. At a televised event hosted by Hugh Hefner, Gottfried cracked a bad taste joke about wanting to catch a direct flight to Los Angeles but having to stop off at the Empire State Building first. “Too Soon!” shouted someone from the audience but it didn’t stop Billy Crystal from laughing hard enough to shoot a meteor of snot into his champagne.
Ever since, we have been looking at a new wave of vulgar but intelligent and knowing comedy. Is this the comedic backlash of 9/11? Partly. Such comedy was around long before the morning that the planes fell out of the sky. But conversely, there is a greater demand now for edgy and unnerving comedy in the mainstream. Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy is seen to be the post-9/11 counterpart to The Simpsons even though it existed in 1999. His American Dad! takes further advantage of this and presents a disturbingly politicised version of the traditional sitcom household complete with a torture chamber in the car-hold and homeland security fridge magnets in the kitchen.
On the other hand, the influx of jokes with sharp teeth has ironically stimulated a market for a brand of ultra-conservative comedy: My Family has enjoyed enduring popularity over the last three or four years as an antidote, welcomed by many, to asinine BBC3 edginess. Similarly, The Catherine Tate Show is so unprogressive in its laughter-track-and-catch-phrase approach to comedy that it feels like an artifact from the previous century. One can only assume that her popularity is the product of a confusing social climate. So perhaps the 9/11 backlash is one of polarised extremes: the ultra-shocking and the ultra-nostalgic.
Almost every comedian on the circuit will have referred to 9/11 at some point in his or her career by now. But why wouldn’t they? The news has always been the number one comedy resource in that it’s a thing that binds us all. It is not the job of the comedian, one might argue, to ‘manufacture’ jokes but to ‘channel’ them from a bubbling comedy stew existing all around us and turn this substance into something with comedic verbal poise: the joke exists already, the comedian merely voices it.
As a former comedy duo who are now performing solo stand-up, Richard Herring and Stewart Lee sometimes unknowingly cover similar ground in their solo stand-up sets. They both like to talk about how 9/11 should be renamed 11/9 in order to correspond to the British form of representing dates. Herring says: “Even if a sobbing woman said to me ‘my husband died in 9/11’ I’d say ‘no, he didn’t’.” Meanwhile, Stewart Lee shouts, “reclaim the calendar! We invented those dates!” and refers to the day as the Ninth of November. Such pedantic commentary superbly makes light of the West’s perception of 9/11 as an important and devastating event.
Perhaps the best thing to clamber out of the wreckage at Ground Zero is Larry David’s cinema-verite-style Curb Your Enthusiasm. Like Family Guy, the seeds of this naturalistic sitcom were sewn before 9/11 but didn’t really come to popular fruition until more recently. While not an inherently political piece (though David often strays into the political arena through his inability to navigate what he perceives to be an unjust labyrinth of political correctness), the show panders to post-9/11 ideals and strikes a cord with even the most casual viewer. There’s an episode (‘The Terrorist Attack’) in which Larry receives a discrete tip-off regarding a pending terrorist attack in downtown Los Angeles. Despite being told to keep this a secret he manages to spread enough mass panic and to stimulate an atmosphere of such paranoia that he’s basically done the imaginary terrorists’ jobs for them. It’s art reflecting reality, kids. It’s clever.
In his televised interview with Ricky Gervais, Larry David motions that his adlibbed situations on Curb Your Enthusiasm derive from his own ‘bad thoughts’. He explains that these bad thoughts normally go unexpressed out of a fear of social faux-pas. In Curb, however, he inverts this. It’s a like a second take on real-world events: fantastic moments of what Larry would have liked to have done in given situations, superego be damned. One might suppose that since 9/11, in our politicised cities, there is a greater number of bad thoughts going around: the censored aspect of ‘should I say this?’ or ‘is that too sensitive a joke now?’. With the attacks on New York and the resulting political shockwaves there came new taboos and the revival of older ones. Larry David, by voicing these things, has enjoyed major success. It’s an old idea of course, beautifully handled in the 90s by Peter Baynham – his ‘mad thought’ variation would usually result in strange nightmare sketches in which middleclass men are forced to wrestle pigs or to pimp disabled relatives. There is probably a seed of ‘bad thought / mad thought’ in the Hopi clowns’ celebrated line-crossing but in the current climate, such humour feels suddenly pertinent.
The political dimension, the ‘under-your-skin’ factor, the clever vulgarity and the monkeying around with topical taboos are all aspects of the post-9/11 comedy repertoire. These comedy tools have existed for a long time but now seem clearer and more relevant. So where should comedy go next? It’s important for comedy to continue to push the limits and to challenge givens, which is no mean feat in the wake of the alternative and post-alternative comedy waves of the 80s and 90s. The main thing it has to do however is to continue to channel the zeitgeist and to remain sensitive to the neuroses currently in vogue.
The Post-9/11 style may not be to everyone’s taste but it’s important for the disinterested viewer to remember one thing when watching Curb Your Enthusiasm, American Dad! or The Thick of It: no matter how uncomfortable it makes you, at least it’s not Catherine Tate.