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Irony In The Post-9/11 Age: Comedy And Tragedy As 'Very Strange Roommates'

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Irony In The Post-9/11 Age: Comedy And Tragedy As 'Very Strange Roommates'

Culture And Criticism

Irony In The Post-9/11 Age: Comedy And Tragedy As 'Very Strange Roommates'

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SCOTT SIMON, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

One week after September 11th, 10 years ago, David Letterman faced the cameras. The late nights King of Irony paid an earnest, heartfelt tribute to those who had died and those who died trying to save them.

DAVID LETTERMAN: And my hope for myself and everybody else, not only in New York but everywhere, is that we never ever take these people for granted. Absolutely never take them for granted.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SIMON: Many cultural commentators proclaimed the death of irony. It's safe to say that didn't happen. But NPR's Neda Ulaby wondered how and if humor changed after 9/11.

NEDA ULABY: On September 29, 2001, "Saturday Night Live" aired its first show following thousands of deaths and the Twin Towers' fall. The mood was apprehensive. Would they pull it off?

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: From Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center, its "Weekend Update" with Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey...

ULABY: The writers and cast faced a dilemma. How do you joke after such a stunning attack?

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

JIMMY FALLON: U.S. officials continue the search for Osama bin Laden. Reports suggest that bin Laden is most likely hiding out remote and barren, where he will not encounter others. The FBI has begun searching theaters showing the movie "Glitter."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

ULABY: You can hear in that laughter a kind of relief. Professor Viveca Greene just co-edited a book about humor after 9/11. She says a turning point came later in the show, when then-mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, took the stage with "Saturday Night Live's" creator, Lorne Michaels.

VIVECA GREENE: Loren Michaels turns to Giuliani, in this somewhat uncomfortable way, and he says: Can we be funny? And there's this awkward pause and Giuliani says why start now.

ULABY: Greene was struck by "Saturday Night Live" asking for permission to be funny from a politician. Another comedian did not ask. When Gilbert Gottfried appeared on TV just a few days after the attacks he intended to shock.

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: Tonight, I'm going to be using my Muslim name- Hasn't bin Laid.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ULABY: The audience did not laugh when Gottfried then kidded about an airplane making a connection at the Empire State Building. More recently, Gottfried got in trouble for mocking the tsunami in Japan the day after it happened.

GOTTFRIED: There's that old saying, tragedy plus time equals comedy. And I always say like, well, why wait.

ULABY: Gilbert Gottfried, the King of Too Soon, says his mind just works that way.

GOTTFRIED: See, to me, comedy and tragedy are roommates. And they're very strange roommates but they're always together. And if tragedy is around then comedy is not far behind. You know, if tragedy shows up, comedy is looking over its shoulder sticking its tongue out.

ULABY: Gottfried says at a moment fundamentally upsetting at what it means to be part of a human community, joking proves you've survived.

GOTTFRIED: My reaction was business as usual.

GREENE: It seems a little insensitive to me.

ULABY: Professor Viveca Greene says jokes in bad taste have a few things in common with irony. That explains all the talk about the end of irony after 9/11.

GREENE: Irony has a reputation for being subversive and edgy, and its often associated with cynicism.

ULABY: Before 9/11, Greene says irony was associated with a flip, throwaway humor. Like on "Seinfeld," which took on hot topics as macaroni, nose picking and yogurt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "SEINFELD")

WAYNE KNIGHT: (as Newman) Say this yogurt is really something, uh? And its nonfat. I've been waiting for something like this my whole life and it's finally here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ULABY: After 9/11, some young people started identifying with post-irony. Including artist Brian Leo.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

ULABY: At a little art gallery in New York City, about a mile from the former World Trade Center, Leo recently showed paintings evoking 9/11. Pop-inspired candy-colored images of the Twin Towers, Osama bin Laden, even bodies falling. The show was called "The Post Ironic."

BRIAN LEO: It means I'm being serious and sincere, and I'm not being ironic. So I mean that's pretty much what I was going for with that idea.

ULABY: Post irony is not the easiest idea to define. Broadly, it's about embracing what's genuine, in a weirdly self-conscious way.

But irony itself changed after 9/11. It turned from yogurt to politics. The Onion. Stephen Colbert. Dave Chappell. Jon Stewart, here talking with 9/11 first responders as Congress debated a bill that would give them health benefits.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

JON STEWART HOST, THE DAILY SHOW: Did you have to promise things to the other firefighters or other policemen, like just vote with us on this to go down the towers to save people. And we'll have chili on Friday night?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ULABY: Stewart has been given a lot of credit for getting that bill passed. And credit too for making humor since 9/11 something to take seriously.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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