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A Decade of Dark Humor

A Decade of Dark Humor: How Comedy, Irony, and Satire Shaped Post-9/11 America

Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    A Decade of Dark Humor
    Book Description:

    A Decade of Dark Humoranalyzes ways in which popular and visual culture used humor-in a variety of forms-to confront the attacks of September 11, 2001 and, more specifically, the aftermath. This interdisciplinary volume brings together scholars from four countries to discuss the impact of humor and irony on both media discourse and tangible political reality. Furthermore, it demonstrates that laughter is simultaneously an avenue through which social issues are deferred or obfuscated, a way in which neoliberal or neoconservative rhetoric is challenged, and a means of forming alternative political ideologies.

    The volume's contributors cover a broad range of media productions, including news parodies (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,The Colbert Report,The Onion), TV roundtable shows (Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher), comic strips and cartoons (Aaron McGruder'sThe Boondocks, Jeff Danzinger's editorial cartoons), television drama (Rescue Me), animated satire (South Park), graphic novels (Art Spiegelman'sIn the Shadow of No Towers), documentary (Fahrenheit 9/11), and other productions.

    Along with examining the rhetorical methods and aesthetic techniques of these productions, the essays place each in specific political and journalistic contexts, showing how corporations, news outlets, and political institutions responded to-and sometimes co-opted-these forms of humor.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-007-9
    Subjects: Sociology, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Popular Culture and Post-9/11 Politics
    (pp. xi-xxxvi)
    Ted Gournelos and Viveca Greene

    When one looks back on the events of September 11, 2001, after almost a decade of social unrest teeming with political humor and satire, it seems more than a little strange that editorials and commentators initially called for an “end of irony.” In its September 24, 2001, edition, for instance,Timemagazine ran an article by its editor Roger Rosenblatt titled “The Age of Irony Comes to an End.” Lambasting what he regarded as a thirty-year reign of ironists who in “seeing through everything, made it difficult for anyone to see anything,” Rosenblatt bitterly asked his reader, “Are you looking...

  5. PART ONE First Responders

    • CHAPTER ONE EVERYTHING CHANGES FOREVER (TEMPORARILY): Late-Night Television Comedy after 9/11
      (pp. 3-19)
      David Gurney

      Stand-up comedians are among the most visible practitioners of the comedic arts in contemporary American culture. Small communities have long had their own humorists to lampoon local people and topics, and in the contemporary mass mediated public sphere, successful stand-up comics do this for an audience of national and, in some cases, transnational scale. Although many critics and scholars dismiss comedians as either politically insignificant or as opportunists exploiting social idiosyncrasies for cheap laughs, many of these humorists serve at least two critical public functions: first, they comment upon and reveal potential failings or hypocrisies of American society, especially those...

    • CHAPTER TWO “WHERE WAS KING KONG WHEN WE NEEDED HIM?”: Public Discourse, Digital Disaster Jokes, and the Functions of Laughter after 9/11
      (pp. 20-46)
      Giselinde Kuipers

      When I arrived in the United States on September 12, 2002, exactly one year and one day after the attack on the World Trade Center, to study American humor, many people told me that I had come too late. “September 11 was the death of comedy,” people would tell me. “After 9/11, Americans have stopped laughing.” Most Americans felt that after these events, humor and laughter had become inappropriate. A year later, the nation’s sense of humor still had not recovered completely. Humor about 9/11, as the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had become known, was...

    • CHAPTER THREE “THE ARAB IS THE NEW NIGGER”: African American Comics Confront the Irony & Tragedy of 9/11
      (pp. 47-56)
      Lanita Jacobs

      Undeniably, the events of September 11 stunned and momentarily silenced many American comics, including some of the nation’s most popular humorists. As Jay Leno and David Letterman expressed their personal grief onscreen, Los Angeles–based African American comics and their largely Black and Brown audiences had somehow found the will to laugh.How did they find humor in the wake of such wide-scale tragedy and loss?

      These questions consumed me in the weeks following the terrorist attacks, transforming a long-held casual interest in Black stand-up comedy into an impassioned preoccupation. In October 2001, I immersed myself in urban comedy shows...

      (pp. 57-78)
      Jamie Warner

      In the emotion-laden days following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, American writers, editors, and pundits wondered out loud what the attacks meant: for our national identity, for democracy, for the world. One unusual strain of this discussion focused on what seemed at first glance to be a peripheral topic: irony, or more specifically, the death of irony. In aTimemagazine article entitled “The Age of Irony Comes to an End,” Roger Rosenblatt declared that, before 9/11

      [n]othing was real. With a giggle and a smirk, our chattering classes—our columnists and pop culture makers—declared that detachment and personal...

  6. PART TWO Enter the “War on Terror”

    • CHAPTER FIVE LAUGHS, TEARS, AND BREAKFAST CEREALS: Rethinking Trauma and Post-9/11 Politics in Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers
      (pp. 81-98)
      Ted Gournelos

      The discursive shift from the events of September 11, 2001, to the “trauma” of “9/11” to the “war on terror” wasn’t easily accomplished, although in retrospect it sometimes appears that seamless. In fact, considering 9/11as traumawasn’t as automatic as we (as humans, as Americans, as students or scholars) often think. However, the two concepts are deeply connected; had it not framed 9/11 as a national trauma, the Bush administration would never have been able to make a steady or seamless case for war, either against Afghanistan or against Iraq. “9/11” itself, as several scholars have noted, is a...

      (pp. 99-118)
      David Holloway

      Towards the end of Frédéric Beigbeder’sWindows on the World(2004), a 9/11 novel that relates the deaths of a father and his children in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, there is a moment of characteristically Beigbederian black humor. With his tongue wedged firmly in his cheek, the narrator describes the “apocalyptic politeness” of post-9/11 New Yorkers, who have begun escorting blind people across city streets and surrendering their places in lines for cabs (Beigbeder 2004, 195). The rather bleak and intellectual joke depends on the reader recognizing the futility of these civic gestures, for, as Beigbeder...

      (pp. 119-136)
      Viveca Greene

      On April 9, 2003—twenty days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq—Comedy Central aired the one hundredth episode of its top-rated showSouth Park. The episode “I’m a Little Bit Country,” devoted to examining U.S. citizens’ response to the invasion, concludes with Eric Cartman delivering a speech at a community rally:

      I learned something today. This country was founded by some of the smartest thinkers the world has ever seen. And they knew one thing: that a truly great country can go to war, and, at the same time, act like it doesn’t want to . . . It’s...

      (pp. 137-160)
      Michael Truscello

      Two years after the publication of the 9/11Commission Reportin July 2004, public opinion polls showed varying degrees of skepticism over the veracity of the report and the testimony of government and military officials. A Zogby poll in May 2006 showed 42 percent of Americans believed “that the US government and its 9/11 Commission concealed or refused to investigate critical evidence that contradicts their official explanation of the September 11th attacks” (, “Zogby poll,” 2006). A Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll in August 2006 showed 36 percent of Americans believed their government was in some manner complicit with the 9/11...

  7. PART THREE Rethinking Post-9/11 Politics

    • CHAPTER NINE LAUGHING DOVES: U.S. Antiwar Satire from Niagara to Fallujah
      (pp. 163-181)
      Aaron Winter

      A 2006 episode of Comedy Central’sThe Daily Showridiculed an army-sponsored essay contest that solicited new ideas for “countering insurgency” in Iraq. Correspondent John Hodgman read a mock entry which detailed a scheme to “drop thousands of king cobras into Fallujah, each equipped with its own little parachute.” The snakes would then “fight with their magical venom, and turn the Sunnis into Shi’ites and the Shi’ites into Sunnis” (Apr. 25, 2006).The OnionWeb site suggested, likewise, that the Bush administration could “send 30,000 mall security guards to Iraq” (Nov. 10, 2004), “begin calling up Civil War re-enactors for...

    • CHAPTER TEN “HUMMER RHYMES WITH DUMBER”: Neoliberalism, Irony, and the Cartoons of Jeff Danziger
      (pp. 182-196)
      David Monje

      Editorial cartoons, in addition to injecting humor into otherwise serious discourses, are a longstanding means of revealing disingenuous political rhetoric. They have, in cartoonist Patrick Olivant’s words, the capacity to “galvanize public opinion and kick-start discussion” (Olivant 2004, 24). At their best, as Chris Lamb (2004), Jeffrey Jones (2004), and many others have argued, cartoons often expose lies and contradictions by visually, metaphorically, and semantically confronting the inconsistencies in political discourse. Jeff Danziger’s syndicated editorial cartoons following September 11, 2001, zeroed in on the Bush administration’s responses to the attacks by (literally) drawing connections between cold war policy, the events...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN LAUGHING ALL THE WAY TO THE BANK: Enron, Humor, and Political Economy
      (pp. 197-213)
      Gavin Benke

      It hardly needs pointing out that for many U.S. citizens, the terrorist attacks of late 2001 were a shock to the political, economic, and cultural system. Though it may now seem trite to say that “everything changed” after 9/11, in the immediate aftermath there was no question that the tone of public discourse was different. Week after week, aggressively frightening images appeared on the fronts of magazines: the October 1, 2001, cover ofTimefeatured a close-up of Osama bin Laden with the phrase “Target: Bin Laden” in bold letters, and the October 8Newsweekcover depicted a U.S. Marine...

    • CHAPTER TWELVE WHAT’S SO FUNNY ABOUT A DEAD TERRORIST?: Toward an Ethics of Humor for the Digital Age
      (pp. 214-232)
      Paul Lewis

      One problem with writing a book about rapidly changing trends in politics or popular culture is that the demands of publication compel authors to stop writing while the trends they have been studying continue to evolve. Hardly seems fair. And yet if one has accurately plotted the trajectory of these trends, found useful explanatory frames for the events studied, respected the lessons that seemingly anomalous occurrences can provide, and taken into account the way new facts can both challenge existing theories and guide future empirical research, then some or most of the events that occur after the final draft is...

    • Coda: Humor, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies
      (pp. 233-242)
      Arthur Asa Berger

      In my work on humor I elaborated a typology with forty-five different techniques of humor that generate laughter. I found, after I had listed these techniques, that they fit in four categories—techniques basically involved language (e.g., allusion, exaggeration, irony, puns), logic (e.g., absurdity, repetition, reversal, unmasking), identity (e.g, burlesque, caricature, exposure, parody), or action (e.g., slapstick and speed). This list can be used to study humor in different groups and countries to see what techniques dominate and what patterns of techniques emerge, and are particularly useful for studies of cultural politics (e.g., racism) because they abstract us so much...

  8. Contributors
    (pp. 243-246)
  9. Index
    (pp. 247-253)