Deborah Drucker December 14, 2001
Laughing at Terrorism

What would wartime life be like without having stand-up comedy? If forced to watch endless hours of mournful televised depictions of violence against humanity, dressed in black, with no comic relief, could we tolerate war and all it embraces?

War, a nice neat little word that volumes have been written about, and I suspect if compiled in one place, would look like a small country. If one contemplates the images of this nasty little word, war, it is mindful of how such contempt and hate gives us permission to perpetrate acts towards other human beings, and no matter how noble the cause, seems to bring out the worst in us. A seemingly innocuous expression, that is used, illustrates our acceptance of this behavior; “all is fair in love and war.” War generates horrible acts of mass destruction towards humankind, producing disease, famine, countless orphans, severe, as well as minor physical casualties, rape; these events are so horrific, the average person cannot really comprehend. As a result of these atrocious wartime activities, severe post-traumatic stress conditions are quite common among our warriors, which affect their lives forever.

As individuals, as well as collectively, we need to have a mechanism to deal with the ghastly and gruesome aspects of war. How have we been coping with the atrocities of war in 20th through 21st century America? In this contemporary, “enlightened,” open society, at least in part due to the influence of the comedians that perform stand-up comedy, we have been able to tolerate war. Ultimately one would have to ask the even broader question of how war would be affected if there was no cultural reinforcement of any kind within the field of entertainment, however this would be too ambitious a task to address with the confines of this work.

“If we can put misfortune in the proper perspective, we can use humor to show the foolishness of our anxieties, the absurdity of our anger, and we make the unbearable bearable……..The attitude and mood of comedy is the decision to disavow the heat and pain of living. We use it because we are too big to cry but not mature enough to dismiss it. “(Saks 13)

The role of stand-up comedy has much more far-reaching effects on our society than just sheer entertainment. Stand-up comedy during wartime America has a major influence in our thinking and therefore in the outcome of war by reducing the fear factor, controlling the power of the enemy, shaping and maintaining unity among Americans, transitioning effectively from peacetime to a state of war (Wertheim 264), and educating the public. While in the throngs of battle, this type of entertainment provides a sense of normalcy and releases tension.

As a result of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, on New York City and Washington D.C., the nation was stunned. New Yorkers were left traumatized and shocked, shaken with fear, and in disbelief of both the magnitude of the attack and that it actually took place on American soil. For about a week, all regular television and broadcasting was replaced with non-stop, commercial-free news. President Bush was declaring war on terror and the “evil-doers.” American troops, along with those of nations committed to give support, were galvanized and America was at war.

Stand-up comedy helps maintain the sanity of civilians and the military during wartime, including this new “War on Terrorism”, while sustaining its popular support, as illustrated by Sol Saks in the following:

"Humor is used for feelings that are too deep for tears. It can bring to light things that can hurt as well as delight-and once they are brought to light, they never seem to hurt as much.
Very early in my career the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima gave me three separate shocks. The first was the horror of this new death-dealing invention. The second shock was a few weeks later when I heard, with revulsion, a joke about that same horrendous weapon. My third shock was a few years later when I found myself writing a joke about an atomic bomb." (Saks 21)

When we can laugh at war, we can deal with it by holding it in a lighter place in our minds, making our view of war and terrorist attacks so much less scary, which diminishes the fear factor. In my interview with stand-up comedian, John Baisell, Jr., in October, about a month after the "911" attack that proceeded the American “War against Terrorism,” he stated, “Everyone now is very edgy and laughter is really the best medicine, it’s a release laughing.” My nephew, a New York City policeman, who worked day and night, digging out bodies at the World Trade site, said basically the same thing, “comedy is a release.”

I can personally attest that about 10 weeks after "911" my mood was drastically uplifted after spending two and a half hours laughing, as a member of the audience of a comedy show at Stand-UpNY, in New York City. Before the show began, we introduced ourselves to two men seated at our table, who told us that they were new to New York and were army medics, recently stationed in Harlem. Why did we need military medics in Harlem? The obvious frightening answer is to assist civilian in case of another attack, which of course includes the potential of chemical or biological warfare. Of the many comics we watched that evening at least three had the audience laughing uncontrollably. While in the throws of these laughing frenzies, I looked at my friend and these two men, who were also in the same state. I can’t quite explain the overwhelming feeling of relief that I experienced, while tears were streaming down all of our eyes, each looking at another, intuitively knowing we were connected in laughter and it felt great.

Tension dissipates when we can laugh at circumstances, especially when the military and the government are “calling all the shots” and gives it us some sense of power. Sol Saks says “Ridicule is a powerful weapon. When used insensitively it is often cruel. When used against injustice it can bring the malefactor to his knees quicker than physical force.” (Saks 20) In visualizing the enemy in absurd and demeaning circumstances that create laughter, especially hysterical laughter, we believe we have much more control over them, especially when not too much exists, as in the early days after of the World Trade attack. Take for instance a Jay Leno joke, a few weeks after "911", when he says, “The Miss America pageant is the kind of thing that drives the Taliban nuts: women in bathing suits and high heels, voting” (Seiler. Are We…? 2B.) This particular joke also clearly defines the threat of the American way of life to the enemy. After all, isn’t that what the fight is all about, our freedom that we have worked so hard to achieve? Which in turn supports the next point.

Through comic monologues we can unite in laughter, while creating a staunch common bond against the enemy and exalting our own leadership. In turn this reinforces our justification for war, with its continued maiming, death and destruction, which may play a part in actually prolonging the war effort, and may also contribute to a winning outcome. To quote Jay Leno, “When times are good, you make fun of the king. When times are bad, you make fun of the enemy” (Seiler Are We…? 2B.) Also, in a more recent Leno shows, such as the one on December 11, 2001, Leno plays the mock game of “Where’s Bin Laden hiding”, in the most absurd circumstances, painting a picture of a defeated pathetic character, to the delight of the American viewers. The message here is that we are winning and Bin Laden, who we thought of as a cunning feared leader, is now impotent and truly laughable.

These comic messengers have had a significant role in our transition from peacetime to war in America in the 20th century. As an example of this, the comedian intervened when the country needed to ration food, conserve metal, and reduce vital resources during World War II. Strong messages were sent directly from the government; however they were conveyed so much more effectively by comics in their routines and skits (Wertheim 267). See Appendix A., Jack Benny, Gracie Allen, and George Burns routine.

Comedians took a stand to assist the country during the tough depression era and repeated the process during the hard times of World War II. Most comedians of that era felt a strong sense of duty towards America, having risen from poverty and many coming from families of immigrants seeking political and religious freedom. (Wertheim 282) Because of this, the public got more than just laughs; it also got an education. In Radio Comedy, Wertheim quotes Will
Rogers as saying ,“Personally, I don’t like the jokes that get the biggest laughs……I like one where, if you are with a friend, and hear it, it makes you think, and you nudge your friend and say, ‘he’s right about that.” (Wertheim 66)

Comedy picks on that which is wrong and has played a vital role in American wars, at least from World War II to present, and already has played a key part in dealing with this new War on Terrorism. During World War II, Bob Hope, entertained the troops, in what some might call stand-up comedy, although the phrase was coined probably a decade or so later. Ron Roth, comedian, reflecting on Hope, told me, “He was there to build the morale of soldiers, and support the government’s position of being proud of ‘you guys’ ." See Appendix - Interviews. This was encouraged and supported by the government and obviously helped cement values for the soldiers overseas. Hope was even able to joke about the attack on Pearl Harbor and our entry into World War II, and said on a broadcast “There’s nothing to worry about though…California alone couldn’t beat Japan…After all how could the rising sun hold out against the drifting fog.” (Wertheim 309)

Today there is a renewed passion for entertainment to support the troops in the “War on Terrorism”, perhaps intentionally paralleling the World War II USO effort. Wayne Newton, an unlikely choice, but popular with the masses, actually has been selected as Bob Hopes’ replacement, leading groups of entertainers fairly close to the real action of the war. A press release, produced by the USO on December 11, 2001, lists a cavalcade of stand-up comedians to entertain the troops, as part of their entourage. What better way is there other than watching stand-up comedy to relieve the tension after a hard day of blowing-up the enemy, or searching caves in a strange land, having to avoid undetonated mine fields, hoping that each subsequent step will be as uneventful as the last.

The USO understands that the entertainer has enormous power by being able to influence thousands of troops engaged in battle. Therefore, it is interesting to note that the USO chose a “vanilla entertainer”, a middle-of-the road American patriot, who would not make waves by contradicting the American government’s message. Wayne Newton certainly sets the tone for that “good behavior” and will choose only those performers that fit within the tight patriotic parameters. They never would send controversial comedians such as George Carlin, Dennis Miller and certainly not Bill Maher, as they do not want their comic routines to challenge the war effort in any way. The comedians, through their material, remind the troops of the American way of life and validate what they are fighting for. Their purpose is to reinforce the message that the fight is “just,” we are winning and “apple pie,” with the military audience laughing throughout.

By listening to ridicule of the enemy, the soldiers feel more power over their prey, unite and rally around the cause initiated by commonality of the messages and the group laughter.

Betsy Borns, writes in Comic Lives: (28 – 39)
“stand-up is satire and, regardless of how comforting or confrontational it is for angst-avoiding audiences, it is also planting some serious seeds.” “……. if you want to get a message across and the frontal lobe is locked, you go through the back door. Regardless of how non-provoking it may seem at times, stand-up is by nature an asocial endeavor; the status quo and punch lines mix like Petra Kelly and atom bombs. The premise for every joke is that something is wrong-with you, with the country, with your mother, with something! If nothing is wrong it’s not a joke, it’s making conversation. Ultimately the audience chooses whether to view what they see onstage as thought provoking or thought preventing. But the important point is that it is a thought.”

It’s obvious that the events of "911", have had a tremendous negative impact on all Americans, but as a New Yorker I can personally attest to the distress caused by seeing the burning World Trade tower from less than a mile away, while on my way to work, and then hearing the explosion from the second plane hitting the other tower. My colleague, who ran to the street, to see it, came back moments later crying, “the building collapsed.” We felt vulnerable, doomed and scared to death. The ensuing days seemed surreal and as the weeks passed some sense of normalcy resumed, but certainly leaving us with the feeling that we will never be the same.

During this time, the American approach to entertainment took an extreme turn. Immediately after this attack all entertainment halted, lasting for about a week, as stunned New Yorkers and the world reeled in shock. Two weeks after "911", the Mayor’s message was that we needed to continue living, although, he acknowledged, we were still mourning. His views were influenced by the severe economic impact and that New York City needed “a shot in the arm.”

Most New Yorkers would agree that Mayor Giuliani is quite an effective and eloquent speaker, especially proving himself during this particular period of crisis. In his position, he has available to him any mode of his choice to address the public with his message of renewal and “now is the time to start putting lives back together.” However he did not have a press conference to give a rousing speech, but instead chose the vehicle of comedy to deliver his message. One could assume that he chose to communicate with comedy since it can cross most barriers of age, race, nationality, education levels and politics. This would enable him to reach as many as possible, avoiding the loss of those who would be unreachable. Due to the mass appeal of comedy, he was considerably more effective than by just telling New Yorkers to get on with their lives. So on Saturday Night Live, September 26th, flanked by 2 dozen or more police officers, firefighters and rescue workers, Giuliani gave New Yorkers permission to laugh again (Armstrong.) Lorne Michael, the show’s producer, asked Guiliani, “Can we be Funny?” to which he replied, “Why start now!” (Saturday Night Live.)

A month later, in October, on the road to normalcy, Americans, were “fragile”, as a friend so aptly put it. Fragile what a good word. “Easily broken, damaged, or destroyed, frail; lacking physical or emotional strength, delicate.” This now brought up interesting dilemma for comedians. How could they create and perform material for a fragile audience?

Comedians always performs a delicate dance of sorts with their audience, with subjects that are controversial, one wrong word, or wrong move, the audience, who may have been rolling with laughter can become the arch enemy, slaying you with their silence. (Borns 17)

“Paul Provenza says that the most frustrating thing in the world for a comic, ‘is an audience that won’t open its mind-that won’t give you any creative freedom. This usually happens when they will not hear you. It’s a sheep mentality. I know its happening as soon as I hear an ‘Oh-h-h’ over something slightly over the edge of good taste. I know immediately I’m dealing with sheep. It only takes one person to screw up the audience, to say, ‘Hey guys, we’re getting out of hand here, we can’t let him take us that far over the line’. Then suddenly every one agrees with them.’ The comedian has bombed and what’s worse if offended deeply enough, it can be career suicide."

The envelope has continued to be pushed further, and what was acceptable material prior to "911", was way off limits after (Borns 18-19).

As an example, Saturday Night Live before "911"; the scene is in aTex-Mex restaurant Gore and Bush are at a table, sometime after the election and the recounting of ballots.
Bush is saying, "am I really President, are you sure?" Gore replies “Yes Al, you sure are, no more lawyers.” "Really “ George replies “Cool, maybe I’ll start a war. You know it’s like executions supersized.” Al goes on to say “you know never before has the county been so divided” George with a quizzical look, pauses and says “ Damn do I want the chimichangas?”

After "911", with terrorism landing on U.S. shores, where were the new lines drawn? How can a comic make his point and convince the audience of his opinion? How can he accomplish his goals without alienating or offending his audience? Have the rules changed and will our appreciation of the stand-up comedian become a vestige of our frivolous days, before we were shaken-up? Will this type of entertainment stand the test of time?

One popular political comedian, Bill Maher, cost his show the Federal Express sponsorship because he crossed-the what perhaps could be called newly drawn lines by comments he made on his September 17, 2001 television talk show. On this night, the first night he aired, after being blacked out like the rest of TV, due to the recent events, his show took on a serious tone. During the first few minutes of the telecast, he said….”And I do not relinquish, nor should any of you, the right to criticize, even as we support our government”. One cannot say he was attempting to be funny, when towards the end of the broadcast, as he refuted Bush’s statements, and Maher accused the US military as being cowards, while stating the suicide pilots were brave. (Politically incorrect) In his statements, which were somewhat taken out of context, but never the less grossly insensitive to the moment, he lost FedEx and an uproar ensued. September 17 (Politically Incorrect.)

Now three months after "911", comedians have skillfully woven war commentary and jokes into their monologues, along with standard material, walking a fine line to avoid criticizing U.S. leaders and their policy. Mixing the old with the new, Jay Leno, recently said, “Gary Convit doesn’t look too bad now,” and also quipped “The anthrax scare in Florida might have came from an intern. The later was found just to be a rumor started by Hillary to scare Bill.” (Hoffmann)

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. wrote the following in his preface of a book about two comedians:
“It is the truth: Comedians and jazz musicians have been more comforting and enlightening to me than preachers or politicians or philosophers or poets or painters or novelists of my time. Historians, in the future, in my opinion, will congratulate us on very little other than our clowning and our jazz.” (Wertheim preface)

So in asking how could we cope with wartime and terrorist acts without stand-up comedy and the release it brings, I conclude that we would do not much better than the Finnish.

In 1993 and 1994, I coordinated two stand–up comedy workshops, given to students of the acting academy in Helsinki, Finland. The actors and others there told us that their culture was quite repressed and knew little of the craft of comedy due to the fact that the Finnish people were taught that laughing, especially in public was an embarrassment. Even small children were punished if caught laughing.

How strange it seemed to me that such a basic human emotion could be denied. Some say that Finland’s high rate of suicide is due to the long dark days of winter and overindulgence in alcohol and drugs. However how well can the Finns cope with life without the ability to laugh? What release do they have from negative emotions, and what happens when it becomes repressed? It seems likely to me that overindulgence in alcohol and drugs would be very likely, as would suicide.

In this, the aftermath of one of the most serious conflicts in American history, "911", the role of stand-up continues to be a vital thread within the American way of life. Despite its continually evolving look, stand-up will not only thrive, but take its important place in American history.

Walter Sorell, states in Facets of Comedy,
“‘The endurance of comedy is merely a symptom of our will to survive, to spite and to overcome death and damnation. Not that man could not live without comedy, but he cannot exist without laughing. He must summon the clown to help him with his public exasperations and private despairs, to soothe his anguish with medication, to make him see the absurdity of tragedies. And the clowning man will always raise his head to make sure he has the eyes and ears, the mind and heart of an audience with whom he can go on laughing.” (Wertheim xiii)

There is no doubt that history will show that stand-up comedy, playing such a significant role in how we deal with life, particularly in contemporary America, will have affected the outcome of our “War on Terrorism.” Based on my work I have begun to understand the affect of our comedians and their messages and although they help us tolerate the brutal aspects of war, they also comfort and bolster us in our mission. To quote funnyman, Jerry Seinfeld, “We were all shaken up, but…you want to fight back, repair the damage and keep going….” (Grossberg)

What would wartime life be like with out having stand-up comedy? How would we have been able to survive the terrorist attacks and Bush’s declaration of the “War Against Terror?” From observing the pulse of those around me in New York City, and my own research, including watching hours of stand-up performances, in this aftermath of "911", I contend that, not unlike the Finns, without stand-up comedy we would be exhausted, disheartened and distraught to the point of suicide.


A sampling of a radio routine by Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor and Jack Benny:


Gracie, haven’t you heard that gasoline is being rationed?


Well of course I know gasoline is being rationed! My goodness, what do you take me for, a dunce? I’ve read all about it. All you’re allowed is one cup a day.


Gracie, that’s coffee.


Eddie, don’t be silly. A car won’t run on coffee.


No, no, Gracie – I don’t think you understand. You see, cars run on gasoline – so at his point gasoline has to be rationed.


But why? There’s plenty of gasoline.


I know, but the real reason for cutting down on the amount of gasoline we use is to save rubber.


Really that’s very interesting. I had no idea gasoline was made from rubber.


It isn’t you see-


I had the impression that gasoline came out of wells in the ground.


That’s right!


And I’ve often thought how convenient it was for the filling stations that those wells were always found under the busiest street corners.


Jack, you try it.


Gracie, look what there really rationing is mileage. The less we drive our cars the more rubber we save. and the rubber we save is vital to essential industries- and to the army.


The army? Uses rubber?




Gee, wouldn’t you think with all the modern weapons that soldiers wouldn’t have to use slingshots?

Wertheim (279-280)




Appendix - Interviews

Interview with John Baisell, Jr. Stand-up Comedian at Stand-Up NY, 10/24/01


Deborah: How do you feel about doing comedy now, after "911"?

John: Well actually there’s a lot more material, but you must
have some sensitivity. Another comic, a few weeks ago, was doing some anti-Guiliani and anti-Bush jokes and they didn’t go over too well. A good
comic is sensitive to the situation.
I’m noticing that people are more sensitive and recognize how fragile life is, and it should be cherished.

Deborah: How has your material changed?

John: I want to develop material the gets that point across. But I have noticed that being polite after "911" is beginning to wear off.

Deborah: How is the audience now?

John: Everyone now is very edgy and laughter is really the best medicine, it’s a release laughing.


Interview with Ron Roth, Stand-Up Comedian (10/25/01)

How does Bob Hope’s stand-up act WWII differ from current stand-up acts?
Wasn’t really stand-up, he went to all the wars WWII, Korean, Vietnam and even Dessert Storm.
The humor was poked at those we were fighting, Hitler, Hope’s comedy was aside from the talent he brought over: women, beautiful girls, pinups to keep the GIS knowing what they were fighting for . The comedy wasn’t as important as keeping connected to America. He was really like an MC, not really a stand-up like today. He had other comics that did other material, he brought in a whole show like Dagmar, Jerry Colonna, Hope was the main guy. He did do stand-up with material that was very patriotic, with that thread running through it. He’d talk about my wife my kids my boss, a funny thing happened flying over here.

Government propaganda?
He was there to build the morale of soldiers, support government’s position being proud of “you guys”.

Would Bob Hope’s act work today for US troops? That stuff will always; late night ridiculing Bin Laden,Taliban, etc. Comedian’s find the serious stuff and make it look ridiculous. They find scary stuff and take away the fear, ie Hitler, Mussolini; keep it light; comedians would go to keep the GI’s spruced up.

What was his function in front of troops?
To keep soldiers happy and laughing. Laughing makes people feel better; gives a rest from reality of world, and for that time you are not depressed. “Keeps you connected to others, laugh and the world laughs with you.”
Bob Hope was a well-established movie star by WWII. It was probably a new concept, don’t believe that they did that during WW1. Maybe in France such as song “how do keep down in farm after seen Paree?” Maybe government wanted them to remember what they were fighting for? Otherwise could be there and sucked into the culture, maybe they wanted to keep them focused.

What do you feel stand-up’s role is today?
Most comedians today know that there could be a great road to riches. There is more certainly, than years ago; the venue for comedians to get work in sitcoms and films.
Role? To make them laugh. Some comedians do silly stuff. George Carlin wants to inform,
Dennis Miller has a message, others want to make you laugh. Importance of humor, yes to be funny and also can deliver a powerful message, such as the style of Lenny Bruce, he wanted to tell you something.

If you were doing comedy what approach would you take now?
Look at the military poke fun without being anti-American. Don’t think any comedian would be anti-American, but would be able to ridicule America. What’s funny is awareness of situation, what’s general in the news, what’s visible people can relate to, such as the attorney general does this and that.



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