How 9/11 Changed What Americans Laugh At

The attacks altered the course of modern comedy, fueling the rise of political satire as a form of mainstream entertainment.

A wooden stool with a microphone on top, surrounded by smoke
Getty; Paul Spella / The Atlantic

A now-familiar joke that started circulating within the first year or two after September 11, 2001, goes like this:


“Who’s there?


“9/11 who?”

“You promised you’d never forget.”

The punch line, of course, refers to the refrain that became ubiquitous in the United States following the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people and shattered the country. “Never forget” embodied the reflexive patriotism of a time when people began to affix American flags to their cars and plant them on their front lawns. September 11 was quickly made into something hallowed and untouchable—a malleable symbol and political litmus test as much as a series of terrible events. The knock-knock joke was a small, transgressive gesture; it punctured the etiquette that said humans must approach certain tragedies with a deep moral seriousness.

Many such jokes were prevalent during those first years after 9/11. The question of whether they added up to something greater than the sum of their parts—whether they amounted to something like dissent during the George W. Bush era—is one that a new documentary attempts to answer. Too Soon, directed by Nick Scown and Julie Seabaugh, chronicles nearly two decades of 9/11 comedy through interviews with late-night hosts, writers, and stand-up performers. The film is an absorbing journey back to a cultural moment that indelibly altered the course of modern comedy, although it concludes by overstating the power of satire on its own to shape politics.

The film unfolds in roughly chronological order, beginning with the initial weeks after September 11, when several New York City comedy clubs temporarily closed and most comedians proceeded carefully for fear of offending a raw and hurting public. “Humor Goes Into Hiding,” announced the think-piece headlines. David Letterman and Jon Stewart issued earnest, tearful responses to 9/11 on air, but not everyone was so cautious. Too Soon takes its title from an audience member’s reaction to a joke told by Gilbert Gottfried two weeks after the towers fell, when there was still smoke in the Manhattan sky. Gottfried briefly lost the crowd after quipping that he couldn’t get a direct flight to California, because the plane had “to stop at the Empire State Building first.” He won them back with his off-color “aristocrats” routine, a version of a vaudeville-era gag involving incest. As Gottfried and other comics explain in the film, Americans were ready to laugh again, just not about terrorism.

Some of the comedic experimentation that immediately followed 9/11 tested the limits of free speech for entertainers, who made up the new rules of acceptable taste as they went along and found that even jokes about 9/11-adjacent subject matter occasionally crossed a line. Shortly after Bill Maher called U.S. military policy “cowardly” on Politically Incorrect, then–Press Secretary Ari Fleischer advised Americans to “watch what they say,” and ABC eventually canceled the show. Doug Stanhope’s irreverent jokes about first responders got him death threats. Janeane Garofalo’s anti-war comments later made her a target of a right-wing-media harassment campaign.

Other comedy writers played it safer, sensing a need for gentle, feel-good laughs rather than controversy. For instance, Saturday Night Live aired an episode on September 29, 2001, featuring the Ground Zero firefighters and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, an ode to the strength and resilience of New Yorkers. The Onion—then a small indie newspaper—distributed a warmhearted and well-received 9/11 issue with headlines such as “Hugging Up 76,000 Percent.” (Over the next few years—when the dust had settled, literally and figuratively—the paper pivoted to harsher takes on America’s response to terrorism, but these do not appear in the film.) The comedians and satirists interviewed in Too Soon describe humor serving as a coping mechanism for performers and audiences alike, an attempt to process tragedy and move on from it, a way of returning to normalcy.

But we know the spoiler here: There would be no return to normalcy for the country. Within a year or two of 9/11, comedy started taking up many of the changes that followed—government surveillance, color-coded threat levels, and a war justified by the unsubstantiated claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. In the documentary, the comedian Laurie Kilmartin explains how performers calibrated their jokes for the audience, stating, “It’s never the actual thing you make fun of; it’s how everyone responds to it.” The political climate forced comedians to shore up their ideological stances—more sharply dividing those who leaned conservative, such as Dennis Miller, from liberals who mocked America’s botched response to the attacks and the chilling imperative against asking questions in the first place, such as Marc Maron and David Cross. Although not stated explicitly in the film, the liberal (and libertarian, since we should count South Park) perspective ultimately made the biggest cultural mark.

Too Soon effectively reminds viewers how deeply the politics that grew out of 9/11 infiltrated comedic entertainment. It plays all the hits, including George Carlin on mindless consumerism (“go out and buy some jewelry and a new car, otherwise the terrorists win”) and The Simpsons on U.S. militarism (“war is not the answer, except to all of America’s problems”). The documentary includes clips from Team America: World Police, Chappelle’s Show, and the “Axis of Evil” comedy tour, featuring a troupe of Middle Eastern stand-ups who joked about the racial anxieties of white people during a time of frenzied jingoism and Islamophobia. This makes for a satisfying retrospective, even if the film omits some of the more biting, nihilistic humor (comic strips by Tom Tomorrow and Aaron McGruder, online memes about 9/11 truthers) that wouldn’t translate well to the screen.

Although humor about 9/11 and the Bush administration’s foreign policy proliferated across multiple genres, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert most visibly transformed the comedy landscape during this era. Too Soon explains how The Daily Show, which Stewart had hosted since 1999, gained new credibility among young viewers as it found its political footing, adopting a wry skepticism toward the Iraq War and the media’s manufacturing of consent. As the comedian Scott Aukerman points out, the show invented the “montage of hypocrisy,” an oft-imitated gotcha device highlighting the tendency of politicians to blatantly contradict themselves. Then came The Colbert Report, a satire of pundit programs that added truthiness to the national lexicon, a way of critiquing the steady American diet of political falsehoods disguised as facts. When these programs first intervened in the conversation, they offered a counterbalance to the blind hawkishness that had seized much of the populace, and for this, at the very least, they deserve credit. But it’s worth asking, to what end? And what happened afterward?

Too Soon misses some larger context that satirical news, one of comedy’s most dominant forms in the post-9/11 world, was a part of—namely, the unintended consequences of the shift toward infotainment. In some ways, this broader shift intensified divisions between red states and blue states, and may have helped erode public trust in the media. Satire and slant further entrenched many Americans where they already stood, splitting television into warring (if also smirking) echo chambers and likely contributing to the well-documented political polarization of the past 20 years. Any sense of unity via collective, cathartic laughter was short-lived; recall that Bush took less than a month to declare, “You’re either with us or against us,” and most people picked a side. Though his comment referred to the War on Terror, it encapsulated all manner of turn-of-the-millennium cultural squabbles. With the line between news and entertainment blurred, a rogue’s gallery of reporter-personality hybrids emerged on the major networks to preach to their respective choirs. As Leno has said, “You don’t change anyone’s mind with comedy; you just reinforce what they already believe.”

The comedians interviewed in Too Soon use words such as healing and reassurance to describe the impact of early 9/11 humor, making the (classically Freudian) case that jokes offered psychological relief to a nation in distress. As this humor evolved to meet the moment—to comment on issues such as racial profiling—it became a conduit, says the comedian Negin Farsad, for “social justice” and “social change.” The argument that 9/11 comedy functioned first as escapism and then as social criticism is compelling, not least because the best satire serves, as the old adage goes, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

But overstating 9/11 comedy’s power beyond the realm of culture would be misguided. Think of Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, when he confronted Bush and the media with their own ineptitude. The performance cemented Colbert’s status as a folk hero, but it didn’t affect policy or change anything materially. To get a bit of actual justice, Stewart had to aggressively lobby Congress (as a citizen, not a television persona) for years to win health care for injured and ailing 9/11 victims. Even he seemed to understand the limits of political satire. A medieval court jester had license to humble his monarch, but he could not redistribute the harvests. He could not end a war.