The jokes didn’t stay down long. Sure, there were a few days after 9/11 when comedians — on TV, in clubs across the country — were still so thrown off and scrambling after the towers fell, that they wouldn’t have known where to start writing a joke. But by the following week comedians were taking the mic and beginning to search for the humor — both in the tragedy itself, and in the aftermath, as the story of the tragedy began to be used and abused.
A new movie making the rounds, The Voice of Something, features comedian, and now podcast superstar, Marc Maron through his day on September 19th, 2001, including a stop in a comedy club. While talking heads were discussing the “end of irony,” comedians in New York City had no choice but to address the attack. As Maron said in an interview with On the Media yesterday,
“We’re in the trenches here, we’re in New York City…As soon as comedy clubs started functioning again we were out doing it. And they haven’t found most of the bodies, you can still smell the thing burning, are we gonna stand up on stage and act like it is not happening down the street? We weren’t afforded that time.”
Comedy can be a powerful tool for healing. Maron, in his interview, talks about how people came in to the comedy club after 9/11 just for some moments of relief. At the same time, comedy began responding to and helping to shape the collective response to 9/11. As we know, almost immediately the narrative of 9/11 became a tool for personal and political gain — bolstering the careers of Giuliani and Bush, revving up nationalist rhetoric, and sparking jingoist calls for war and revenge that “just happened” to align with existing neo-con plans for US influence in the Middle East.
For me it was Aaron McGruder’s comic strip (turned cartoon) The Boondocks that helped me most during that period. I was living in Ann Arbor, MI, at the time, and was not personally connected to those who lost lives in New York that day, so mine was not a process of healing. But I remember a strange silence spread out over that liberal enclave. It was clear early on that the political trend was towards war, a war we knew couldn’t be “won,” in a country already battered by past fights between superpowers, a war that quickly became two. A feeling of inevitability spread across the campus, and in my fear and rejection of this storyline I felt quite alone. Eventually people began to protest and push back, but for quite a while It was hard to figure out who felt what because the discourse had become so stilted.
Reading the Boondocks helped me to feel less alone. McGruder, rather than being silenced or toned down by the disaster, came out swinging — at the bush administration, and particularly at the rampant silencing of critique as “unpatriotic.” This was an exciting and liberating time for the strip, and when McGruder did some of his best work. Most vivid in my memory is the period in which the strip was purportedly “censored” to make time for the “ribbon and flagee” show, which tore into the increasingly fascist narrative of patriotism and war.
The strip has since ended, and McGruder pretty much left it long before that. It’s now a cartoon on Adult Swim. But those little strips will stay with me a long time, and I never did thank McGruder for his loud voice in a time of collective censorship. And these voices are still needed. While I respect people’s need to memorialize those who they lost on September 11th, 2001, we need to be vigilant about how the narrative is used by those who do not have our best interests at heart.