Folklore and humor and terror

I was told once, by a friend taking an anthropology class, that the ubiquitous dead-baby jokes (‘what’s grosser than gross?’ and its ilk) began during the Vietnam war as a coping mechanism to make the My Lai massacre seem less horrific. They went on to say that the Challenger disaster jokes were the way that Americans dealt with that tragedy, that gallows humor was the folklore mechanism humans used to deal with the gallows.

It makes sense, sort of. I mean, there’s the classic joke about the old man in the shtetl who reads the anti-semitic rag because it contains nothing but good news about how Jews are running the world. The Jewish cultural wealth of humor could have been developed to fend off the Jewish cultural burden of tragedy.

So, how come we don’t we have any good jokes about 9/11?

I mean, we’ve got jokes about terrorists. There’s that sitcom script running around about the terror squad who starts a bowling league… there’s your standard jokes about terrorists trying to make bombs (“don’t worry, we’ve got another one in the trunk” goes back at least to the IRA days, and is basically a joke about how the Irish/Arabs/whoever are stupid). And of course you’ve got your jokes about TSA security and toenail clippers. (No, Encyclopedia Dramatica doesn’t count. Lulz are not laughter.)

I have heard only one, and that just last week:

Knock knock
Who’s there?
World Trade Center
World Trade Center Who?

But I wouldn’t say that really constitutes “jokes” in the plural. Nor would I argue that it’s any sort of evidence that the US as a nation is coping with 9/11 in any sort of constructive way.

But as a friend pointed out, you don’t hear any Pearl Harbor jokes either. So maybe we only create jokes for some tragedies, and not others? Maybe humor isn’t the way we cope with tragedy at all? Maybe I’m just missing out on a trove of hilarious WTC-related humor (probably not.) Got any good ideas?

2 thoughts on “Folklore and humor and terror”

  1. Perhaps things that tragedies in Stalin’s parlance warrant jokes, while statistically larger events yield only generalized nationalistic/racist/xenophobic sentiment?


  2. One amusing anecdote (though not a proper joke) I heard only a few days after the fact revolved around a man who played hooky from work at the WTC and was in his mistress’s bed, oblivious to current events, that fateful morning.

    His cell phone rings. It’s his wife.

    “Where are you?”

    “Oh, I’m at the office.”

    “What’s going on there?”

    “Oh, nothing unusual.”

    I’m not really sure how it progressed from there. I expect it ended somewhere along the lines of, “I’m so relieved you’re alive. I want a divorce.”

    And what, you never heard any Pearl Harbor jokes?

    A Jew goes up to a Korean and punches him.

    “What did you do that for?”

    “You bombed Pearl Harbor.”

    “But that was the Japanese. I’m Korean.”

    “Japanese, Korean, Chinese. It’s all the same to me.”

    The Korean punches the Jew.

    “What did you do that for?”

    “You sank the Titanic.”

    “But that was an iceberg!”

    “Iceberg, Greenberg, Goldberg. It’s all the same to me.”


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