The fall of 2001 has been depicted as a strong test of Americans' patriotism, faith and community spirit. So what about our sense of humor?

Paul Lewis
Prof. Paul Lewis (English) is pretty serious when it comes to comedy, and has been keeping a watchful eye on the state of the nation's funny bone since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. For Lewis, one of the most significant aspects of America's response to the horror was a national debate on what, if anything, could possibly be humorous.

With quipsters Jay Leno and David Letterman off the air, the satirical magazine The Onion suspending publication, and the political-humor ensemble The Capital Steps canceling performances in the aftermath of Sept. 11, "a moratorium on joking seemed to have been declared," said Lewis, who has appeared on the National Public Radio program "All Things Considered" and in HUMOR: International Journal of Humor Research.

Yet less than two months after the tragedy, jokes related to Sept. 11 were appearing all over the Internet, Lewis said. "They're everywhere and doing a wide range of things: ridiculing the Taliban and bin Laden, ridiculing President Bush and the Republicans, making light of the dangers of this more dangerous world."

The Onion, which some commentators portrayed as a veritable barometer of the nation's humor index, has resumed publication as well, Lewis points out: Its first post-attack issue included a story headlined "US Vows To Defeat Whoever It Is We're At War With" and a recent edition proclaimed "US to Arab World: Stop Hating Us or Suffer the Consequences."

"In a world of complicated culpability," Lewis said, "these features get at some of the more implausible rationales that have been advanced in support of our foreign policy: that we know whom we're fighting in the war against terrorism or that we are disliked because we are so virtuous."

So in this grave new world of heightened security, what's the deal with having a sense of humor? More than one might think, explains Lewis.

"Behind much of the speculation about America's mood lurked a reductive notion of the social and psychological functions of humor: the assumption that all jokes about terrorism would serve the same purpose and be equally inappropriate," said Lewis. "But while it's possible to imagine tasteless jokes that ridicule human suffering, it's equally possible to imagine jokes that express outrage, assert a will to endure, or challenge dominant or majority thinking.

"Though slow to develop, terrorist humor has done all of this. Political satire has been particularly valuable in challenging the seemingly lockstep wartime outlook, reminding us that even in dire times it is always prudent to question authority."

-Sean Smith


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