The construction of the joke was simple. Yet, less than a month after the Sept 11 attacks in 2001, it signified a huge sigh of relief, for the comics on stage and their audience, off.
"Can we be funny?" Lorne Michaels – the Grand Poohbah of Saturday Night Live and all-around comedian king maker – asked from the stage of SNL's season premiere. His question was directed toward New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, by now knighted "America's Mayor," who stood onstage with Michaels alongside a group of New York first responders. But it was also rhetorical, reflecting philosophical concern underneath America's outward post-9/11 despair.
"Why start now?" Mayor Rudy Giuliani quipped back.
The joke had followed a solemn 9/11 tribute that included an emotional Paul Simon performance of "The Boxer." It also came a few days after Time's Roger Rosenblatt and Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter had declared the age of irony dead.
But even before the seminal moment in Studio 8h in Rockefeller Center, other mainstream comedians were stepping up to the plate, delicately exploring America's deep sadness after the attacks by employing the humor and irony that could relieve the country of it.
David Letterman was the first late night comic out of the gate, his show "Late Show with David Letterman" returning the Monday after the attacks. Conan O'Brien's "Late Night" followed the next night, and Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" a few nights later. All three comedians filmed their shows in New York and opened with choked-up odes to their cities.
"Forgive me if this is more for me than it is for people watching, I'm sorry, but uh, I just, I have to go through this," Letterman admitted about his opening. Not just with their monologues, they felt unsure how to move on with their comic routines altogether, as O'Brien said, "I have never ever felt more unsure or more at lost than I do tonight."
There were however, already, minor attempts at humor.
Jon Stewart – whose show is perhaps the most cynical of the gang – joked, "They said to get back to work and there were no jobs available for a man in the fetal position under his desk crying."
"Thank God, Regis is here, so we have something to make fun of," Letterman ribbed at the end of his monologue.
The question of who makes an appropriate target was a top concern among comedians. Will Ferrell told WNYC a week after 9/11 SNL would "have to keep our foot off the gas pedal for a while" when it came to " the political and topical humor we're usually known for." (For what it's worth, his George W. Bush impersonations were back by October)
The first post-9/11 issue of "The Onion" pulled no punches, causing the staff to worry, as then-writer John Krewson told Yahoo News, "it would be our last issue in print." Its targets included Hollywood hack producers ("American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie"), Washington hubris ("U.S. Vows To Defeat Whoever It Is We're At War With"), citizen helplessness ("Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake") and reactive xenophobia ("Arab-American Third-Grader Returns From Recess Crying, Saying He Didn't Kill Anyone"). According to Kewson, "It wasn't an especially funny issue. In fact, I'd say it was the least funny issue we've ever done." However, since, it's marked an important step in the country learning to laugh not just after the attacks, but about them.
Like "The Onion", making light of the outpouring of patriotism proved successful for SNL. In one of Ferrell's best skits ever, he showed up to his office's "USA Day" wearing an American flag thong. Not surprisingly, the easiest target for comedians was the attack's perpetrator, Osama bin Laden. Even the raid that finally killed him lent to some memorable comedy, like the SNL skit that had his disposed body dropping in on a parody Little Mermaid scene.
Not every 9/11-themed joke landed however. Gilbert Gottfried bombed with his, given at a roast a few weeks after. "I have a flight to California," it went. "I can't get a direct flight—they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first." It was met with crickets and a "Too soon." But Gottfried saved his act with an infamous rendition of "The Aristocrats" that stirred so many laughs, he is actually now considered a post-9/11 comedy success story.
Even 10 years later, the subject could be treacherous. A November 2011 episode of "Family Guy" had Brian and Stewie time traveling to prevent the attack, only to set off a series of events that brought America a fate much worse. Many claimed that, if not too soon, the episode went too far. Those few examples aside, irony doomsayers have been proven largely wrong. Perhaps they should have looked to the past before making their predictions, as New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani pointed out in her early rebuttal to their claims: "The belief that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 will lead to kinder, gentler entertainment belies the historical record of reactions to earlier tragedies, wars and social upheavals."
Perhaps the greatest irony of post-9/11 humor is that we worried it was going somewhere in the first place.