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The 'Age of Irony' is Alive and Well

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The 'Age of Irony' is Alive and Well

The 'Age of Irony' is Alive and Well

The 'Age of Irony' is Alive and Well

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6053478/6053479" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Humorist Brian Unger looks at how comedy has changed and evolved in the five years since the Sept. 11 attacks. Ironically, predictions of the end to the "age of irony" never materialized. Irony, it seems, is made of tougher stuff...

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

One week after 9/11 five years ago, Time Magazine published an essay entitled The Age of Irony Comes to an End. Ironically, humorist Brian Unger still works here, and here is today's Unger Report.

(Soundbite of music)

BRIAN UNGER: In his 9/11 essay, Roger Rosenblatt wrote: for as long as the twin towers stood, the good folks in charge of America's intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously. The ironists -Rosenblatt called them - seeing through everything made it difficult for anyone to see anything. The consequence: one will not know the difference between a joke and a menace.

In America, who or what is the joke, and who or what is the real menace? We were so sure of the distinction the week after 9/11. These days, we find ourselves mired in a feedback loop of irony. Perhaps a golden age of irony, as journalist David Beers predicted in his rebuttal to Mr. Rosenblatt.

To prevent another 9/11, America went to war with Iraq. Don't even think about snickering. You're supposed to find nothing more amusing than reruns of Seinfeld. The fact is, Hollywood hasn't been able to make a hit sitcom like Seinfeld since 9/11.

Fear, while great fodder for comedy, has been bad for the business of comedy. So the funniest man on TV left town, shape-shifted, and emerged in New Jersey as a murderous and lovable Tony Soprano - how ironic.

Like a game of Whack-a-Mole, on 9/11 comedy was hit on the head with a hammer, went underground, and popped up in new places. Now we delight at the unwitting fool dancing on YouTube and hopeful American idols humiliating themselves on national TV at the hands of vicious judges. Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Keith Olbermann, Harry Shearer, all Reilly-dance on the third rail of comedy, laid bare and fully charged with a current of war, religion and politics.

In most media, ironically, what makes us laugh after 9/11 comes from out of darkness. So much has been written and so much said criticizing the irony industrial complex. But on the sixth night after 9/11, for me it was an ironist - a self-described clown - who defined the new seriousness best. Saying in just 36 seconds in vaporous, fleeting words that what lies between a joke and a menace is a riddle. Five years later, I still remember David Letterman.

(Soundbite of TV show, Late Night with David Letterman)

Mr. DAVID LETTERMAN (Television Host): The reason we were attacked, the reason these people are dead - these people are missing and dead - and they weren't doing anything wrong. They were living their lives, they were going to work, they were traveling, they were doing what they normally do. As I understand it - and my understanding of this is vague at best - another smaller group of people stole some airplanes and crashed them into buildings. And we're told that they were zealots fueled by religious fervor - religious fervor. And if you live to be 1,000 years old, will that make sense to you? Will that make any goddamn sense?

UNGER: And that is today's Unger Report. I'm Brian Unger.

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