Who’s laughing now?

The change in the humor zeitgeist since 9/11 can be summed up in one word: ‘fear’

David Martin is the author of the satirical collection My Friend W, published by Arriviste Press

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, nothing seemed funny, and it felt as if humor itself had died. Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter famously said in the week after the tragedy: “I think it’s the end of the age of irony.”

It turned out, of course, that Mr. Carter was wrong. Contrary to the predictions of some, humor in all its forms did manage to survive. Within weeks, the late-night comics were taking shots at politicians, and editors again were accepting humor pieces.

So, does that mean that humor hasn’t changed since September 11, 2001? Well, yes and no.

Superficially, nothing much appears to have changed. Pre- 9/11, we had late-night talk shows with political humor, a political-satire show in the form of Politically Incorrect and the occasional piece of satire on the op-ed pages of the nation’s leading newspapers. Post-9/11, we still have late-night talk-show hosts offering political jokes, a political satire show in the form of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the occasional piece of op-ed humor.

But beneath the surface there has been a change in the humor zeitgeist that can be summed up in one word: “fear.” In contrast to the carefree Clinton years, there has been an undercurrent of anxiety and fear in post-9/11 America. And that fear affects the national funny bone.

First, there is the fear of the unknown. We are apparently now engaged in an unending war against terror. Our enemies are often unseen and unidentified. Who are these terrorists, and why do they hate us?

It often helps to satirize and ridicule one’s enemy to help dispel the fear. But when the enemy may be right in your own neighborhood, it’s hard to know who or what to ridicule. Or even if you want to risk ridiculing anyone.

And that leads to the second fear, the fear of offending Muslim sensibilities. Since the perpetrators of 9/11 and more recent tragedies around the world identify themselves as followers of Islam, there is a natural tendency to examine and even satirize the religious culture from which these men come.

But what happens when humorists try to tackle this knotty subject? They run up against charges of cultural insensitivity and even racism. Seemingly innocuous attempts at satire lead to widespread criticism and even death threats. Think of the Danish cartoons incident and the chill it has imposed on writers and editors throughout the Western world.

Finally, there is the fear of speaking out at all. For the longest time after 9/11, the media gave President Bush a free ride. After all, we were under attack, and it was time to rally around our leader to help defeat the enemy.

This uncritical support was reflected on the op-ed pages of the nation’s newspapers. In Bush’s first year, his missteps and mistakes were fair game for humorists and satirists. But post-9/11, those same gaffes and goof-ups were overlooked or, at best, only tepidly satirized.

This natural and understandable desire to support the president in a time of crisis was later exploited by the government. The president and his administration played on that desire and fanned the flames of fear.

There was a slight scent of McCarthyism in the air. To be critical of the government’s actions was to support the enemy. To poke fun at the Bush administration was, in some small way, potentially traitorous.

Satirical humor in the conventional media lost its edge. Political satire that did get published tended to be mild, and any critical references to Bush were often veiled or circumspect. Fear of reprisals moderated critical humor.

But just as the new age of post-9/11 sobriety could never last, so, too, the era of fear has finally started to fade. Citizens and the media are beginning to speak out and voice their doubts about the enemy, the Muslim world and the Bush doctrine. And with this change in attitude has come a stronger, healthier cynicism and a return to the edgier political humor that helps keep America on track.

The five-year anniversary of 9/11 brings with it sober second thought and respectful reflection. But with any luck, it also will signal a letting go of the consequent fear that has hampered our national dialogue. Ironically, that first sick joke you hear about the World Trade Center may just mean that the cloud of gloom hanging over us has finally begun to lift.