Humor based on the September 11 attacks

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The term 9/11 humor refers to jokes, whether in print or otherwise, based on the events of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

A number of scholars have studied the ways in which humor has been used to deal with the trauma of the event,[1][2][3] including researcher Bill Ellis who found that jokes about the attacks originating in the USA the day afterwards, and Giselinde Kuipers found jokes on Dutch websites a day later.[4][5] Kuipers had collected around 850 online jokes about 9/11, Osama Bin Laden, and the Afghanistan war by 2005.[4] A notable early public attempt at 9/11 humor was done by Gilbert Gottfried just a few weeks after the attacks. During a comedy roast for Hugh Hefner at the Friars Club his 9/11 gag did not go over well with the crowd. One audience member at the club yelled out "Too soon!", which has since become a common response to jokes told in the immediate wake of tragedies. Gottfried then improvised and performed "The Aristocrats" routine, which released a great deal of tension and got rousing applause from the crowd.[6][7]

In contrast to these early jokes about 9/11, late-night comedy shows and humorous publications did not appear for several weeks following the attacks.[4] The Onion, a satirical newspaper, cancelled the issue that had been scheduled to be released on September 11, 2001, and then returned to print with a special edition on September 26, 2001, which was devoted to the attacks. When the issue was released, the newspaper staff felt trepidation over making humor of such a tragic event. "Everyone thought this would be our last issue in print," according to one staff writer. Despite this expectation, The Onion staff was quickly inundated with comments from readers, the vast majority of which were positive.[8] However, they self-censored the article titled "America Stronger Than Ever, Say Quadragon Officials."[9]

One of the first 9/11 jokes made by a major American comedian in the UK was one told by Joan Rivers in London in 2002. The joke concerned the widows of fire fighters killed in the attacks, who Rivers said would be disappointed if their husbands had been found alive as they would be forced to return money they had received in compensation for their late spouses.[10] The joke received condemnation from Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters.[11]

In literature[edit]

"The Zero" (2006) by Jess Walter is a post-911 satirical novel which features a New York City cop who shoots himself in the head and forgets it minutes later; his brain damage accounts for gaps in the story.[12] The postmodern novel "United States of Banana" (2011) by Latin American author Giannina Braschi treats the entropic scenes of disaster on September 11 with black humor; the work describes New York City without the Twin Towers as a mouth unwilling to laugh because it is missing its two front teeth.[13]

In 2016, comedian Billy Domineau uploaded a spec script to the Internet that he had written for Seinfeld,[14] which had aired its last episode in 1998, set in New York during the days after the attacks. He said later that it had started when he suggested "a 9/11 episode of Seinfeld" to a student as an example of "an exercise in bad taste" for a class.[15] In his episode, the show's four main characters follow plotlines typical of them, all related to the attacks: Jerry becomes convinced that dust from the fallen towers is contaminating his food; Elaine, initially relieved that she won't have to break up with a boyfriend who worked at the Twin Towers, finds herself engaged to him when he unexpectedly survives; George basks in the glory after he is mistaken for a hero who rescued people, and Kramer attempts to recover the high-quality box cutter he loaned to Mohammed Atta. Popular minor characters, such as George's parents and Newman, also make appearances. "[It] is indeed in bad taste, but it perfectly captures the self-obsessed way these characters would handle such a crisis," wrote The Guardian.[16]

In animation[edit]

In the Family Guy episode "Back to the Pilot", broadcast in November 2011, Brian and Stewie take a trip back in time during which Brian tips off his past self about 9/11 so that the old him can play hero and stop the terrorist attacks. This causes George W. Bush not to be re-elected, meaning a Second Civil War starts that leads to nuclear attacks on the Eastern Seaboard. A Time critic wrote of the episode, "It sounds custom-made for a 'too soon' label, and it probably is. But avid Family Guy viewers live for "too soon" moments, no matter how sensitive the material."[17] Other news organizations, including Aly Semigran of Entertainment Weekly, also thought the show had gone too far with the reference.[18] Deadline also commented that it "squeaked past the Fox standards and practices department but is sure to raise as many eyebrows."[19]

However, perhaps reflecting how the acceptability to mainstream broadcasters of jokes referencing the 9/11 attacks has evolved only gradually, the DVD release of the earlier season five Family Guy episode "Meet the Quagmires", first broadcast in 2007, contained an extended scene which was removed from the episode as first broadcast. In the deleted scene, while traveling in time back to 1980s Quahog with Peter, Brian is confronted by the boyfriend of a woman he has been hitting on. In response to the boyfriend's challenge that he will fight Brian 'anywhere, any time', Brian invites the man to meet him "On top of the World Trade Center, September 11th 2001 at 8am", to which the boyfriend replies "I will be there pal. You think I'll forget, but I won't!".[20] Additionally, the season seven episode "Baby Not On Board" features a scene in which the Griffin family visits Ground Zero, which Peter erroneously believes is "where the first guy got AIDS."[21] The season six episode "Back to the Woods" had Peter committing identity theft against a fictionalized James Woods, in retaliation of him doing the same and ruining his life. Peter appears on the Late Show with David Letterman proving he is Woods, promoting a comedy film based on the attacks.[22]

To improve the chance of an Oscar award, a 9/11 joke was cut from Jean Dujardin's 2012 comedy film The Players. The deleted scene featured a man seducing a woman in a New York apartment while an aircraft crashes into the World Trade Center in the background.

In advertising[edit]

In the days before the 15th anniversary of the attacks in 2016, Miracle Mattress of San Antonio, Texas, briefly ran a commercial promoting a sale themed around the occasion. In it the daughter of the store's owner, in conversation with two employees who stood behind her, explained how the store was recalling the Twin Towers' collapse by selling all its inventory at the price of twin-sized mattresses for the weekend with the slogan "Twin Towers, Twin Price". At the end of the ad, she inadvertently pushed the two employees into twin piles of mattresses behind her, one of which was topped with the American flag; both collapsed. After briefly expressing shock and horror, she turned to the camera and said "We'll never forget".[23]

The company soon pulled the ad, but copies were saved and uploaded to the Internet, where it and Miracle became the subject of intense and vociferous criticism. Entertainment Weekly said it "might be most offensive commercial ever". Its Yelp! and Facebook pages filled with disparaging comments and calls for boycotts; the store itself also received death threat. Owner Mike Bonnano, whose daughter had, as the chain's head of marketing, conceived the commercials and starred in it, apologized profusely but eventually decided to close the San Antonio location "indefinitely" pending disciplinary measures and donations to the 9/11 Foundation. Miracle Mattress reopened a few days later.[24]


Memes have become a rather popular way of distributing jokes about 9/11. A lot of these memes play with or make fun of 9/11 conspiracy theories such as "Bush did 9/11" or "jet fuel can't melt steel beams." There have also been viral Vine videos that joke about fictional characters or other famous people doing the attacks. In these vines, the creators have a clip of them, or something they throw, or perhaps an aircraft they fly, and then cut to footage of the planes hitting the Twin Towers (mostly Flight 175 hitting the South Tower). This makes fun of that character or real person, saying "(blank) did 9/11.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Brottman, Mikita (February 12, 2012). What's So Funny About 9/11?, The Chronicle of Higher Education
  2. ^ Ellis, Bill (June 6, 2002). Making a Big Apple Crumble: The Role of Humor in Constructing a Global Response to Disaster, New Directions in Folklore
  3. ^ Lewis, Paul. [Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict] (2006)
  4. ^ a b c Kuipers, Giselinde (March 2005). ""Where Was King Kong When We Needed Him?" Public Discourse, Digital Disaster Jokes, and the Functions of Laughter after 9/11". The Journal of American Culture. Wiley. 28 (1): 70–84. doi:10.1111/j.1542-734X.2005.00155.x.
  5. ^ Ellis, Bill (October 2001). "A Model for Collecting and Interpreting World Trade Center Disaster Jokes". New Directions in Folklore. NewFolk (5).
  6. ^ "The Guardian". Archived from the original on October 10, 2008. Retrieved April 13, 2012.
  7. ^ Holt, Jim (August 27, 2011). The Encyclopedia of 9/11: Humor, New York (magazine)
  8. ^ Stableford, Dylan (August 25, 2011). "Remembering The Onion's 9/11 issue: 'Everyone thought this would be our last issue in print'". The Cutline. Yahoo News. Retrieved May 17, 2012.
  9. ^ "Fast Chat: The Onion". Newsweek. 2001-10-21. Retrieved 2017-08-15.
  10. ^ "Joan Rivers Jokes About 9/11 Victims". IMDb. May 1, 2002. Retrieved June 25, 2012.
  11. ^ "IAFF Rebuts Joan Rivers Humor on 9-11". International Association of Fire Fighters. Retrieved June 25, 2012.
  12. ^ Maslin, Janet (September 11, 2006). "New York Times: "After the Cataclysm, a Surreal Drift of Failing Senses"
  13. ^ "Review of "United States of Banana"". 2011. Archived from the original on April 2, 2015. Challenging the fear and repression of dissent in the age of terror, Giannina Braschi wickedly brings a black humorous touch to the entropic scenes of disaster, writing from the estranged perspective of a Puerto Rican in New York.
  14. ^ Domineau, Billy (August 2, 2016). ""The Twin Towers"". Google Docs. Retrieved September 7, 2016.
  15. ^ Kickham, Dylan (August 4, 2016). "Seinfeld 9/11 spec script author says episode should've existed, but couldn't". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved September 7, 2016.
  16. ^ Czajkowski, Elise (August 5, 2016). "Seinfeld 9/11 script: a work of genius or just pretty, pretty good?". The Guardian. Retrieved September 7, 2016.
  17. ^ Pous, Terri (November 14, 2011). "Did Family Guy's 9/11 Satire Go Too Far for a Laugh?". Time. Retrieved November 14, 2011.
  18. ^ Semigran, Aly (November 14, 2011). "'Family Guy' 9/11 gag: Did they finally go too far this time?". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved November 14, 2011.
  19. ^ Andreeva, Nellie (November 14, 2011). "'Family Guy' On 9/11 Attack: "Let It Happen"". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved November 14, 2011.
  20. ^, Family Guy: Meet the Quagmires (2007), Quotes. Retrieved July 17, 2013
  21. ^
  22. ^ Pierson, Robin. "Episode 9 - Back to the Woods". The TV Critic. Retrieved September 29, 2012.
  23. ^ Jamie Narrientos (September 8, 2016). Mattress company airs offensive 9/11 commercial (Online video). Retrieved September 9, 2016.
  24. ^ Hibberd, James (September 9, 2016). "9/11-themed mattress ad might be most offensive commercial ever". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved September 8, 2016.
  25. ^ Hess, Amanda (July 6, 2015). "Teenagers and 9/11 trutherism jokes: How these memes became a phenomenon". Slate Magazine. Retrieved September 12, 2016.

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