The radio/five-disc changer/cassette player was hardly cutting edge, but it was still current. In my windowless high school bedroom, the stereo alarm was the only way I’d know it was time to get up. Mid-day, the room was still pitch black with the lights out. An album I’d bought a couple months prior jerked me awake that morning. I rubbed my eyes and made my way to the light switch via muscle memory as “Bleed American” pummeled me awake with it’s candy version of post punk.
Before the song was over, Mom had knocked on my door, face white, voice in the low, measured tone reserved for the worst of situations. They’d just gotten word that my Uncle was safe, but if he’d been in his actual office, instead of the other side of the Pentagon for a meeting, he probably wouldn’t be.
A week later, all copies of “Bleed American” were retitled to “Jimmy Eat World” and the title track called “Salt, Sweat, Sugar.”
By a week later, the conversation about conversations in America had changed. Pop stars started waving American flags. Episodes of TV shows were pulled from syndication. The Nu-Metal trend which had stuck around long enough to flirt with overt pop success was suddenly and unceremoniously curtailed at mainstream radio as America was suddenly no longer interested in songs about bodies hitting the floor, or people equaling shit. Will Ferrell’s portrayal of George W. Bush on SNL (temporarily) shifted from “incompetent boob” to “homespun hero we all rally behind.”
At the same time, the backlash against this new sensibility was already taking hold, especially in the comedy world.
“What can we joke about then, if we can’t joke about human tragedy?” came the beard-stroking rejoinder. Gilbert Gottfried famously bombed in the week after 9/11 and then shifted to. . . the aristocrats. No kidding.
David Cross was arguably one of the loudest, most successful in this newly energized free speech vanguard that made unwitting bedfellows of die hard socialists, libertarians, conscientious objectors, shock comics, and basically anyone who just thought that their right to talk shit trumped all other rights.
While I always believed in trying to be kind, I also did relish the gasps I could extract from folks with a well-timed zing.
In reacting to censorship both real and imagined, arguments formed, grew, and became sacrosanct, to the point where making a dark, snarky joke about 9/11 and it’s victims was an act of patriotism in and of itself because, free speech.
The free speech arguments employed by Cross and pals are now the same ones put forward by Richard Spencer, by the Proud Boys, by any number of White Nationalist groups as they terrorize women, communities of color, people they assume are “libtards,” basically anyone who isn’t them.
It was a Subway Sandwiches where I sat with two of my best friends. We were having a meeting regarding the YMCA Youth and Government program we were all involved in. Still pretty stunned, we coped with dark jokes that we apologized for through shit-eating grins. I don’t remember what sandwiches we got, but safe to say the meat was maybe two days away from getting tossed.
KZOK, the classic rock station was playing. This was a safe bet in most Subways; the pop stations could be too bright, the modern/alternative rock stations too weird, and the hip hop stations general were banned by corporate. The station faded in, the DJ attempted some words about what had happened before stammering . . . “I’ll just play the song.”
I saw the news today. . . oh boy. . .
James looked up from his sandwich at the speakers. “Of course. Of course they’re playing this song.”
As a young writer and artist surrounded by other young writers and artists versed in snark and supposed subtlety, the weight of national tragedy is a hard thing to wrap one’s head around. Let alone communicate. Suddenly, the detached irony or self-involved preciousness of indie rock couldn’t suffice. The swagger and bluster of mainstream rap didn’t scale. I had no truck with pop music at the time, and most folk-derived forms just reminded me of grey hairs who wanted to turn every conversation into one about Vietnam, weed, and anti-war protests from days gone by.
The independent films I enjoyed were all dystopian sci fi or quiet, mumbly comedies, neither of which contained the language to address the national moment.
The art I had did not scale, basically, but the art put forward as the Official National Reaction– unchecked jingoism, the hallmark sentimentality– also felt inappropriate and cheap.
Driving my parent’s gold Toyota Previa minivan home to Lake City from the northern suburbs, the sunset was so beautiful as to be inappropriate. Was God making a joke? Trying to comfort me? At that point, I was exhausted from emotions. I didn’t have friends in New York at the time, but I did have military family and knew that. . . something. . . would happen. Would have to. I was scared, angry, and confused.
107.7 the End, with a playlist even less suited to the occasion, did their best. They were owned by Entercom, a national conglomerate, so there was only so much they could change things up. The DJ threw on Built To Spill’s “Strange” as I cut through suburban streets full of deciduous trees who’s leaves had started to turn, but not fall.
“This strange day is almost over. . . just started to. . . get sick of it. . .”
In the years that followed, as the nation realized that it would be at war for a very, very long time, many artists and writers on the left doubled down on snark, sarcasm, and detached irony. Artists and writers of a more individualist, conservative bent either closed ranks or preferred to focus on quiet, “everyman” narratives.
Most on either side, especially the literate left, were highly unlikely to know anyone who was actually serving in said wars. Maybe a bully from high school, heightening their antipathy. At the scenic northwest college I attended to study English, only one of my peers came from a working class background. I had cousins and Uncles and a couple friends in the military. While my new friends and girlfriend took summer vacations to Europe, New York, went hiking on mountain ranges across America, I worked night shift at a Denny’s in Kenmore. Describing this situation was generally met with blank stares, or helpful suggestions that “why don’t you just quit? Live life to the fullest!”
If you can’t understand having to go to work, I can only imagine your response to someone, say, describing a combat situation.
In the self-obsessed, self-righteous northwest town where I went to college, I saw otherwise ostensibly intelligent people reduce themselves to inane talking points. A Hitler mustache on a picture of George W. Bush passed for heroic protest, a 9/11 joke as proof that you were smart, and wouldn’t give an inch to right wing wackos.
The week that followed 9/11 was also one of personal, social tumult, as one of the friends I’d been in the Subway with had a falling out with another friend over the phone. It was a political conversation, I forget who said what, but Subway buddy announced dramatically on his LiveJournal that he could “No longer be friends with _______” in a move that feels wholly familiar in today’s social media environment, but felt big at the time.
They reconciled, but it took years.
I don’t think that David Cross, Janeane Garofolo, myself, my friends, and the many other comics, writers, artists who doubled down on “offensive jokes” were wholly wrong; dark humor gets a lot of people through a lot of shit. I doubt they, or likely anyone, would guess how sites like Somethingawful and 4Chan would grab the “offensive is good” aesthetic and take it to far darker, viler places. But that line of thinking is far from wholly right, either, as has been demonstrated by the last many years. That, for a good while a 9/11 joke was sort of a holy grail of shock comedy is hardly something anyone should be proud of.
The what-about-ism that has infected the right over the last twenty years manifests hardest in my left-leaning (which I definitely am) friends on 9/11. Lots of “THE REAL TRAGEDY IS THAT. . .” types of posts Grandpa Simpsoning into the air. As if the death tolls from the last decade-plus of overseas wars is extricable from the events used to justify them. As if you can only grieve one set of tragedies.
The tragedy of 9/11 is hardly contained to the day itself; it is also the way the U.S. reacted to it, the ways it is being used to justify the racist policies of our current administration, all the lives lost on the day and every day since. An exponentially more dangerous world and fewer effective ways to talk about it. Tragedy breeds more tragedy.
But you clicked this link for jokes, right?
I THOUGHT YOU SAID YOU’D NEVER FORGET.
Also published on Medium.