In the days after 9/11, late night talk show hosts like David Letterman and Jon Stewart limped back on screen. On September 20, Stewart mused, "They said to get back to work, and there were no jobs available for a man in the fetal position under his desk crying, which I gladly would have taken."
If you made your living being funny, what would you do after 9/11? WNYC reporter Jim O'Grady gathered a group of comedians who were working in New York at the time.
Jane Borden was a member of the Upright Citizens Brigade. The theater shut down, but she and her fellow cast members performed for each other – just two days after the attack. "It was really hard for them to make stuff up on the spot because everything was imbued with the events," she says. But eventually, the humor proved cathartic. "I remember thinking people were laughing so much harder than we usually do," Borden recalled. "It was such a release."
According to Sigmund Freud we have three ways of dealing with tragedy: intoxicating substances, satisfying activity and deflection – which he called "making light of our misery." Comedian Tom Shillue did a routine mocking other performers' self-serving responses to 9/11. An audience member confronted him afterward. "They were like, 'Good show, man, but 9/11 – not funny,'" Shillue recalled. "And I was like, 'That actually was pretty funny. And you'll notice because the audience was doubled over in laughter.'" When does it become safe to tell a joke about tragedy?
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