Every generation has its “Where were you . . . ?” moment. The Baby Boomers had Kennedy, Gen X had Challenger and the Millennials, 9-11. Though the tragedies themselves transpired in seconds, the duration of the national mourning continues indefinitely.A sign that it’s ebbed is when it becomes acceptable to make light of the tragedies with humor. Some will argue that it’s never socially acceptable. The fact is, such jokes are inevitable.
Consider the Kennedy-themed analogue to “Does a bear shit in the woods?” that asks “Does Rose Kennedy have a black dress?”; or the schoolyard definition of “NASA” as “‘Need Another Seven Astronauts'”; and squinty-eyed comic Gilbert Gottfried’s riff that he couldn’t catch a direct flight to Hugh Hefner’s Friars Club Roast because “they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.”
The heckle “Too soon” can probably trace its coinage to that particular evening, which came a mere three weeks after the attacks. Famously, after being admonished by the otherwise silent crowd, Gottfried pivoted into his legendary performance of “The Aristocrats,” the protracted, super-blue gag that became the highlight of the documentary of the same title. (It’s never too soon for scatological humor.)
As Dr. Millicent H. Abel of Western Carolina University observed in her paper “Humor, Stress and Coping Strategies,” “humor has been described as producing a cognitive-affective shift or a restructuring of the situation so that it is less threatening, with a concomitant release of emotion associated with the perceived threat.”
In this light, humor inspired by national tragedies is an understandable, if awkward, response. It also might be necessary as a means of reframing that which is beyond our control in a manner that lets us confront and disarm it—essentially, to make it laughable.
In 2009, CollegeHumor.com released an expertly rendered sketch featuring a trio of stormtroopers reminiscing about the Death Star as if it were the World Trade Center. Though this may sound like a glib undertaking, the video proved an adept exercise in mapping the phenomenon of 9-11 onto the Star Wars universe as a way to explore the anxieties of a post-9-11 world.
In under two minutes, the flick covers conspiracy theories (Emperor Palpatine planned the attack to “justify going to Hoth”), the notion of rebuilding (lest the “Jedis win”) and the frustrating inability to find “one guy hiding out in a cave somewhere in Dagobah.” More importantly, it opens a dialogue on cross-cultural understanding. As one stormtrooper opines, “Just because someone believes in the Force doesn’t mean they’re going to go blow up a space station, all right?”
Yes, it’s a silly line. But in its way, it’s also true. In some ways it’s reductive and patronizing, in other ways it affirms some of our core values. Just because it’s funny doesn’t mean it’s laughable.