On the anniversary of 9/11, Americans are asking each other where they were during the attacks. I was in theater class in Dallas when my teacher told us to turn on the TV because the Bosnians were attacking us (because why wouldn't they?). Nine years later, a strange sequence of events resulted in me moving to New York only a few weeks before the anniversary of the attacks.
I had the pleasure of speaking to John Krewson, a longtime writer for The Onion, about how comedy can serve as the most potent alternative to letting fear and anger overcome us in a crisis. Like thousands of New Yorkers, he watched the events unfold from his rooftop. And while each and every witness to the tragedy has been healing in his or her own way, Krewson and his co-workers had an even more burdensome challenge: the unenviable task of making people laugh in the aftermath.
"Laughter disperses tension, crying kind of wallows in it. You can expand that to a national scale," Krewson said. "I'd much rather live in a country that laughed in the faces of people who try to intimidate us by flying planes into buildings. I'd much rather live in a country that laughed at cowards like that, instead of people who got angry or people who got scared and who empowered them that way."
Krewson has worked for The Onion, America's Finest News Source, since the early '90s when it was located in Madison, WI, and he and the rest of the staff had very recently relocated their offices to Manhattan when the attacks occurred. On September 10th, Krewson and the rest of The Onion's staff were celebrating at a launch party well into the night, blissfully ignorant that the next week would be "the hardest week" of his life. Because for The Onion, it wasn't just about making a joke at the expense of the attacks to score a laugh, any laugh, and then return to business as usual. They understood that they had a responsibility to help people digest and come to terms with what was happening in a relevant and meaningful way.
"The attacks weren't in any way anything but an abomination, an atrocity. You can't get comedy out of that," said Krewson. "What you get comedy out of is people reacting to things. And whether or not they're doing a good job coping."
The Onion was possibly the first responder to the attacks, comedy-wise: Their issue responding to 9/11, entitled "Holy Fucking Shit: Attack On America," came out on September 26th, before late night talk shows or most other humor outlets had resumed. Articles like "Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American Flag Cake", "U.S. Vows To Defeat Whoever It Is We're At War With", and my personal favorite, "God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule", immediately resonated with readers and quickly became their most popular issue ever. It was even considered for a Pulitzer prize.
It's not hard to understand why.
"People were frankly ready to stop wringing their hands and looking for someone to punch in the nose on a national level. People were ready for [...] something," said Krewson. "What we came up with was what everyone was feeling, our feelings of powerlessness, our feelings of incoherence. We had to do something but we didn't know what to do."
The Onion succeeded at doing what humor does best -- finding a core commonality between us and exploiting it in an unexpected, but resonant way. Even though it's hard to define exactly what makes us laugh, nothing is more important than the element of surprise. As humans we learn to normalize our surroundings, and when something is able to transcend that normalization in a particularly absurd or aggressive way, it creates a visceral response. That response is often laughter, or recognition as humor -- a recognition that is more immediately intellectual satisfying than almost anything else.
"Comedy, when it's done well, has nothing to do with stupidity," Krewson said. "A well reasoned, well thought out, funny, satirical answer gets people thinking and stops people from just randomly emoting."
Common wisdom can dictate that humor serves as a tool that helps us forget about problems and distance ourselves from addressing realities of our world. Perhaps to blame is the rise of inherently detached "ironic" humor, which Krewson says is "overused, misunderstood, and really what people call sarcasm these days." The premature eulogy of "the death of irony" by pundits in 2001 wasn't even considered when they were putting together the issue, and quickly disproved after doing so. The Onion's ultimate is the polar opposite of what these pundits seemed to think -- to provide humor that allows us to safely embrace problems.
"For The Onion, when we laugh, it's about laughing despite things happening, or laughing because things should be better," Krewson says. "When we talk about social issues, we're talking about how crappy things are. But we laugh at them because they're so crappy. You laugh or you cry."
Humor has a long history acted as a catalyst for catharsis (some could argue that it's nothing but). Mel Brooks has been lampooning the Nazis, seemingly on behalf of Jews everywhere, since the end of World War II. Political satirists from Jonathan Swift to Jon Stewart and social satirists from Oscar Wilde to Sacha Baron Cohen are usually more resonant and memorable in distilling a cultural viewpoint than their more serious contemporaries. From Richard Pryor to Chris Rock to Dave Chappelle, I truly believe that the great black comedians have changed the dynamic of race relations in America (culturally, if not politically). "The Simpsons" has spent over twenty years gleefully satirizing every aspect of American life, and "South Park," even with its tendency towards iconoclasm for its own sake, is unparalleled in its ability to illustrate a difficult cultural issue to its logical extreme and starkly point out its absurdities.
Krewson hesitates to even classify exactly what The Onion achieved with its 9/11 issue. "What we got out of it wasn't laugh-out-loud, split your sides comedy," Krewson says. "I don't know if it was satirical, I don't know if it was cathartic, although some of it is. We didn't go to irony and we weren't snarky about it." But whatever you want to call it, the response was overwhelming. Krewson says that the reaction from readers was so dramatic, it's hard to single out any one response. And The Onion has continued to address the role the attacks has played in our culture in the years since. A few weeks later they published 'A Shattered Nation Longs To Care About Stupid Bullshit Again,' and to this day frequently run stories defending the memory of the attacks from its perceived exploitation.
So was working on the issue part of the healing process?
"It would be really great, and really Oprah's Book Club to say yes, but I don't really know," Krewson admits. "It's corny but honest, but it's good to know that so many people got a lot out of it and took away the right things from it." Clearly, humor is never the end-all answer to a horrific tragedy such as the one we experienced nine years ago. But nobody can argue that laughing at life's misery has a profound effect on helping us cope. "Apathy took kind of a big hit [after 9/11]. And that's definitely a good thing. Apathy never did anyone any good at all."