Terror and Gallows Humor: After September 11?
Wendy Doniger

September 11: When is it OK to joke?

The September 16, 2001, issue of the Sunday New York Times bore on its front page this notice: "Several of today's sections, including The Times Magazine and The Sophisticated Traveler, went to press before the terrorist attacks last week. The Times regrets that some references to events are outdated, and that the tone of some articles and advertising is inconsistent with the gravity of the news."

For weeks after that, professional comedians agonized over when it was safe to joke, and about what sorts of jokes were permissible and which were not. Articles started appearing in the New York Times entitled "Comedy Returns, Treading Lightly" [September 26] and "Live from New York, Permission to Laugh" [October 1]. Entertainment Weekly on October 12 ran an article entitled, "Comic Relief," with examples of jokes that worked and did not work in a September 29 revue: one that worked occurred when one comedian flubbed a line and another spontaneously ad-libbed, "Hasn't there been enough bombing in this city?" (bombing being show-business slang for total failure); one that got nothing but scattered boos was, "I wanted a direct flight back to L. A., but apparently they have to make a stop at the Empire State Building." One article remarked that Jay Leno, a popular television personality, "started telling Osama bin Laden jokes, based on the 'Springtime for Hitler' model that says it's OK to make fun of the bad guy."[1] (This is of course a far older "model" than "Springtime for Hitler"; during World War II, there were many jokes about Hitler, of which my favorite was the song, sung to the Colonel Bogey march, that began, "Hitler, he had just one ball," and ended, "poor old Goebels had no balls at all." A Dutch friend who had lived through the German occupation of Holland said to me, "We joked about the Nazis all the time."[2]) People began to refer to the attacks as 911, a nomenclature that was a kind of wry joke, referring simultaneously to the month and date of the destruction of the Twin Towers and to the telephone number that one dials in America in an emergency.[3]

When Mayor Giuliani appeared on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" on September 29, the producer, Lorne Michaels, asked him, "Can we be funny?" and the Mayor replied, "Why start now?" which got a big laugh and was much cited; "talking about laughter was a way of reassuring the audience that it was all right to make jokes. . . . Bin Laden jokes, lame though they were. . . had a 'we-can-beat-him' attitude that spoke to the national mood,"[4] but the head writer of the show blocked the words "terrorism," "Twin Towers," and "World Trade Center"[5] and ruled out jokes about President Bush, who until then had been the butt of all sorts of humor. (This latter censorship, unfortunately, continues to this day, evidence that some of us have not yet found the right balance between patriotism and freedom of speech.) The soul-searching of comedians went on and on.

As recently as November 15, the Chicago Tribune ran an article in which the Chicago comedy team called Second City explained how they had begun to joke about September 11, remarking, "If, as the famous saying goes, tragedy plus time equals comedy, then time moved much faster than anyone could imagine back in September."[6] But they had waited until two months after the attacks to do such a show, which they called, "Holy War, Batman! Or The Yellow Cab of Courage." It was a success: "It was amazing how the audiences warmed up to the terrorist stuff so soon after it happened," said the director; "the scenes having to do with the attacks get more response than anything else, and the person who gets the most response is the Arabic cab driver." But they had rejected a number of skits as cutting too close to the bone, including "George W. W. III" and "Thank God We're the SECOND City." Permission to joke about the perpetrators, bin Laden (who was given a mythical brother, Hadn bin Laid) or, more uneasily, the Arabs in general, was granted long before permission to joke about the victims, and the latter granted only to the victims themselves: New Yorkers could say things about New York that no one else could say,[7] just as only Jews can tell certain jokes about Jews, and only blacks certain jokes about blacks. For permission to joke is granted at very different moments to the victims, the spectators, and the perpetrators (or those associated with the perpetrators) of atrocity or terror (even if the latter are personally innocent of any wrongdoing) or anyone who can be suspected of a lack of sympathy with the victims, for that presupposition of sympathy is the precondition for a successful joke.[8] Jews and Germans have very different rights to the satire of the Holocaust.

The New Yorker began with a deadly serious issue whose tone was announced by the cover: an Art Spiegelman drawing of a black night in which one could barely make out two great black holes, the ghosts of the Twin Towers. But three months later, on December 10, they published a different cover, by Maira Kalman and Rick Meyerowitz, a pun on the famous Saul Steinberg map of Manhattan from March 29, 1976. The new cover map depicted an Islamicized New York, with places like "Bad, Veryverybad, Notsobad, Taxistan, Upper Kvetchnya, Central Parkistan, Lubavistan, Artsifarsis, Psychobabylon, Unmitigated Gauls, and with bitter irony, "Lowrentistan," where the World Trade Center used to be. The New York Times on December 8, 2001, ran an article on it by Sarah Boxer, entitled, "A Funny New York Map is Again the Best Defense," which noted, "When their cover came out, suddenly a dark cloud seemed to lift. New Yorkers were mad for the map. They laughed." And the point was clear enough, too; though "It looks like a map of the Middle East has been laid over the whole city, . . . It is still us against them that wants us dead."

The first publication to joke successfully about 911 was the September 27 edition of The Onion, a weekly Chicago newspaper whose usual nationwide website circulation of 158,000 jumped to the record number of almost 400,000 on the first day of the September 27 edition.[9] The headlines alone were balm to a wounded nation: "Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell; 'We Expected Eternal Paradise For This,' Say Suicide Bombers." And "U. S. Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We're At War With." The article headlined "God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule" quoted God: "I turn My head for a second and, suddenly, all this stuff about homosexuality gets into Leviticus and everybody thinks it's God's will to kill gays. It absolutely drives Me up the wall." And under the headline of "Bush Sr. Apologizes to Son for Funding Bin Laden in 80's" the article quoted the ex-President: "We called them 'freedom fighters' back then. I know it sounds weird. You sort of had to be there."[10] But just as interesting as what The Onion put in is what they deliberately left out; the headline that actually appears in the issue as "Massive Attack On Pentagon Page 14 News" was originally supposed to read, "America Stronger Than Ever, Say Quadragon Officials," the joke being that the Pentagon was reduced to four sides. But the editors wondered, "Does this laugh do more harm than good?" presumably because people died when that fifth side was destroyed, and the editors went for the milder joke, because they "did not want to come off as callous."[11] Apparently believing that irony and sympathy are opposed (a belief that I do not share), they felt that to be callous would be in "bad taste." Yet the jokes that they did make were joyously welcomed by readers of The Onion, who carried it around with them for days as a kind of security blanket that somehow reassured them that life was still possible, still good, that things were beginning to be normal again. Why was it so important to know when, and how, it was OK to joke about the terrorist attacks?

War as Play and Illusion

The playfulness that we express when we joke about tragedy is an essential part of what it is to be human. Rudyard Kipling, in his novel Kim, coined the phrase "the Great Game" to refer to the war in what we now call Afghanistan, a war game played by a young boy, Kim, who was manipulated by an adult magician. From time to time, in real life, this play element in war emerges in the players' awareness that they are merely pawns in someone else's game. There was a Christmas during World War I when German and English infantrymen sang carols together; and another moment when the enlisted men on both sides stopped fighting for a half and hour to play soccer—casually, with no fixed rules—until the officers stopped them and artillery fire broke out again. All that was needed for the men to see that the war was a game was to forget the discourse about larger political issues and simply see what was actually happening to them right there. These moments have become parables in works of fiction like William Faulkner's A Fable. But other players in other wars, most notably the Nazis and the terrorists, do not play by the rules, and that—not the war itself, but forgetting that war is a game—is what destroys civilization.

The idea that war is a game, a form of a play, has deeper metaphysical implications. Hindu philosophy speaks of lila, "play," the idea that the whole universe is merely God's sport, a kind of spectacular that he puts on for his own amusement, a play in which it is essential for each of us to determine what role is ours, and to play it.[12] Indeed, where Einstein reassured us that God does not play dice with the universe, Hindu theology tells us not only that He most specifically does play dice, but that He cheats, and is caught cheating.[13] This darker implication of God's play colors Shakespeare's King Lear [4.1.36]: "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods; they kill us for their sport." Here another sinister aspect of the word "play" comes to mind, and a fairly old aspect, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: "to let a fish exhaust itself on the end of a line." But it is the aspect of play as illusion that is most relevant to our understanding of representations of the Holocaust and of terrorism.

To some people, the idea of the illusory nature of the world, or of human activity, smacks of Fascism. It recalls the ethical problems raised by the idea of the Nietzschean Superman: Once the Superman realizes that nothing matters, that all is a game, he can watch other people play by the rules while he himself remains on the sidelines, where he can do whatever he wants. And, in fact, the "it is all a game" philosophy of the Hindu Upanishads was appropriated in the Bhagavad Gita to justify war: you may kill, indeed must kill, for neither the killer nor the victim is real. This Hindu view appealed greatly to Nietzsche; but it is a dangerous game. A grim example, far closer to home, of the moral dangers of confusing illusion and reality is supplied by those children who gun down their playmates, fully expecting them to get up unhurt and laughing, as in cartoons.[14] Yet we might ask if there cannot be an ethics of illusion, if the moral and the aesthetic are necessarily disjoint.[15] For the idea that war is an illusion may also be used in antiwar arguments. The very title of one of the greatest of all films about World War I, La Grande Illusion[16] (1938), says it all; the film was based upon a true story about a friendship between soldiers on the two sides, like the true stories of the men who sang carols together or played soccer together. The illusion is the war; the truth, the reality, is the shared humanity between men of different nations.

September 11 as Cinema

And war is illusion in another sense, too: there is a deep human need to transform terror into art, to regard war as theatre. "To play" in this sense means "to imitate or mime", as well as "to pretend for fun," and finally, "to perform drama on stage."[17] Significantly, the word also means "to represent a person or character in a dramatic performance ..., hence,fig. in real life, to act as if one were, act the part of." In other words, the theatrical usage slips quickly into the idea of treating the real world as theatre.

Mel Brooks, auteur of The Producers, once said that when he was a foot-soldier in World War II, he used to tell the troops, "Nobody dies—it's all made up."[18] Made up by whom? we might ask. Here we might do well to distinguish between the passive, metaphysical aspect of this doctrine—that we are helpless players in God's spectacular—and the active, secular aspect—that we are knowing players. The active techniques are what James Scott has taught us to call the "weapons of the weak" and the "arts of resistance,"[19] and masquerade is one of the most useful. On the other hand, the passive, metaphysical aspect of life as theatre played a major part in reactions to the terrorist attacks on September 11, which Americans tended to view as a disaster movie. Anthony Lane entitled his piece for the special issue of the New Yorker devoted to the attacks, "This is Not a Movie," and remarked: "It was the television commentators as well as those on the ground who resorted to a phrase book culled from the cinema: 'It was like a movie.' 'It was like "Independence Day." ' 'It was like "Die Hard." ' 'No, "Die Hard 2." ' ' "Armageddon." ' . . . What happened on September 11th was that imaginations that had been schooled in the comedy of apocalypse were forced to reconsider the same evidence as tragic. It was hard to make the switch." And he offers an explanation for this reaction: unlike Europeans, Americans have no real experience of such attacks against which to measure this new event: "When a European surveys the wreckage of the towers, he or she will summon, consciously or otherwise, a folk memory of catastrophe. Not 'It's like "Die Hard"' but 'It's like the Blitz,' or 'It reminds me of Dresden.'"[20]

Before September 11, Americans were like God, spectators at the extravaganza. Some people say that on September 11 Americans awakened from the greedy dreams of the 90's, when "everybody" got rich quick—except, of course, the poor. The Onion depicted Americans as resenting the fact that the movie they were watching was not properly scripted, just as Merlina Mercouri in the film Never On Sundays rewrote the ends of the Greek tragedies so that everyone lived happily ever after and went to the seashore. The article in The Onion, entitled, "American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie," had a photograph of the Trade Tower wreckage with the caption, "An actual scene from real life," and it quoted people as complaining, "This doesn't have any scenes where Bruce Willis saves the planet and quips a one-liner as he blows the bad guy up" or "This isn't supposed to happen in real life. This is supposed to be something that happens in the heads of guys in L. A. sitting around a table, trying to figure out where to add a love interest" or "If the world were going to suddenly turn into a movie without warning, I wish it would have been one of those boring, talky Merchant-Ivory ones instead."

The perception of the attacks as a film continued to color perceptions; according to Newsweek, two American women from Waco, Texas, captured by the Taliban and held hostage for five weeks, "often felt as though they were trapped inside a terrifying special-effects action movie," and when they were rescued the father of one of them said, "I don't think Hollywood could have done it better."[21] In the article in The Onion, people also admitted to changing their ideas about violence, finding it less amusing in real-life than it had been on the screen: "I always thought terrorists blowing shit up would be cool. . . . .How could I ever think that? This is actually happening, and it's just not cool at all" and "None of it is exciting or entertaining at all." The article concludes: "Shocked and speechless, we are all still waiting for the end credits to roll. They aren't going to."[22]

A side effect noted by both Anthony Lane and The Onion was the feeling that disaster films would no longer be acceptable, that the experience of art as "as if" had somehow been spoiled, that the disaster film as a genre had become real and therefore no longer viable as "mere" art, no longer amusing. It was as if the genre had lost its sense of humor. I would draw a different sort of line between life and art here, insisting on a distinction between temporary crisis management and long-lasting ways of making sense of a tragic universe. I think that at the time of crisis, in the midst of our pain, we use the "it's just a dream/play" motif to keep from falling apart with shock and grief, while in the long run we need humor to help us go on living.

People who have been the victims of violence, such as rape, often dissociate themselves from the scene of the crime by telling themselves that they were not there, that some illusory double experienced the event.[23] It is highly relevant to our concerns here that those who perpetrate violence, too, may seek refuge by absenting themselves from reality in this way; we know this from Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as from the insanity defense often invoked in present-day legal actions.[24] More specifically, Robert Jay Lifton's The Nazi Doctors documents the ways in which those who perpetrated the atrocities bracketed their moral selves in order to project the responsibility from their evil away from themselves, doing this not merely in order to face others, such as the prosecutors at N’remberg, but unconsciously, for themselves, in order to be able to face themselves.[25]

We acknowledge the validity of this bracketing technique for coping with sudden terror, but clearly there are grave moral perils if we extend it beyond the moment of impact. For afterwards, when we have recovered our balance, it's time to move forward in a different mode, one in which we have absorbed the impact, terror and all, into our real world and found the courage to face the fact that it is real, and with us forever after. At that point, we may make it tolerable not by imagining it as a play or a dream, but by looking it in the eye and joking about it. By joking we reframe the episode in our own terms, transforming it from a passive suffering thrust upon us into an active response to the world; we take possession of it by retelling it in terms that the perpetrator could not.

The philosopher Ted Cohen writes that "laughter is an acceptance of the world, like god's laughter," standing the doctrine of lila on its head; but he also writes that "joking is almost always out of place when it is a kind of avoidance; a laugh should not be a deflection from something else that needs to be done."[26] Here we must again distinguish between the use of humor and masquerade as a temporary repression of reality and as a way of working through reality.[27] Black humor is designed precisely to uncover the naked truth, however painful that flaying may be. Terry Southern reported a conversation he had with Stanley Kubrick about Dr. Strangelove, in which Kubrick told him that he was going to make a film about "our failure to understand the dangers of nuclear war." He said that he had thought of the story as a "straightforward melodrama" until one morning when he "woke up and realized that nuclear war was too outrageous, too fantastic, to be treated in any conventional manner." He said he could only see it now as "some kind of hideous joke."[28]

The Uses of Gallows Humor

If, for some Hindu philosophers, life is a dream, for many Jews, life is a joke, a black joke, or what the Germans call Galgen-humor, a word that only later enters English from the German in translation, as gallows humor.[29] Gallows humor does not exactly laugh with God; rather, it spits in God's eye. Given the course of human history, it should not be surprising to find that it is a Jewish specialty. Let me give you an example of a Jewish gallows joke that is literally about a gallows:

As World War II drew toward a close, the advancing Russians came upon a town only recently vacated by the retreating Germans. They went to the Jewish ghetto and found that every single Jew, man woman and child, had been hung from hastily erected gallows. As they stared in silence, one Russian soldier said to another, "Look what a horrible thing those barbaric Germans have done; they have hung every single Jew in the town." "Yes," said the other, "it is a terrible thing. They didn't leave a single one for us to hang."
This is humor as raw as it gets; one has to have a very low opinion of the human race to find comfort in such a story. And yet it is well known among Jews. When I spoke about this topic in Holland, in December of 2001, one of my Dutch colleagues suggested as a title, "The Shoah Must Go On."[30] In real life, too, gallows humor is always an option. Otto Klemperer's wife used to tell this story about her own experience when she had reached California after a narrow escape from the Holocaust: She went out to buy oranges, and the fruit seller asked her, "For juice?" and she said, "Oh my god, here too?"[31]

Now may well be a good season for gallows humor. The producer of "Saturday Night Live" specifically ruled out "gallows humor," but I side against him and with the editor of The Onion, who said, "People employ irony and sarcasm—we do—because we're bothered by false sentiment. . . Part of the healing process is to embrace the petty and insignificant."[32] Josh Wolk in Entertainment Weekly remarked, "No, irony isn't dead, despite its recent obituaries, but what is comedy's place in a serious world?"[33] Central, is my answer.

For days after September 11, nothing was the same. But gradually, and not without feelings of guilt, we began, not to forget, but to bracket our shock and grief and sorrow and get on with our lives. We turned away from the figures of death and began to be caught up in the precious trivia of our family and professional life. Some benighted soul bracketed his grief so completely as to create a computer virus that masqueraded as one of the many appeals to peace protests that appeared on our emails. Such grotesque cynicism jarred us back into our original shocked concern and again mocked us for caring about buying books while so many of our fellow Americans could do nothing but hope to be able to bury their dead. We suffered from a mild version of survivors' guilt.

It was difficult for us simultaneously to go on living with concern for the longer lines at the airport and the rising costs of fuel and at the same time to stay fully aware of the bodies still lying under that rubble. We strove to keep both of these levels of vision alive in us at the same time. But how? Good films about war teach us how to balance the microscopic view of our daily lives, including the trivia of humor, against the telescopic view of cosmic disaster.[34] This double vision can be achieved in real-life, too. On the wall of the central room in the house in Amsterdam where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis, two charts are preserved, side by side. One chart is a column of short, parallel, horizontal lines by which Otto Frank marked the growth of his children over the years, as my father used to mark mine, and I marked my son's. The other chart is a map of Europe with pins marking the advance of the Allied forces—too late, as we now know, to allow that first chart to grow more than a few poignant inches. They are roughly the same size, those two charts, and they represent the tragic intersection of the tiniest, most banal personal concern and a cataclysmic world event.

That precious, banal half of the chart is also the place where the sense of humor is lodged. There is even a gallows joke about the Broadway play based on Anne Frank's diaries, a joke that makes it just over the borderline of acceptable taste precisely because it is not about the real Anne Frank, but about the actress who played the part of Anne in the original Broadway production. Susan Strasberg played the part, and played it very badly, by most reports, which I can confirm, having seen her do it; on one occasion, at the end of the play, when the Gestapo came into the building where Anne and her family were hiding, someone in the audience shouted, "She's in the attic." Getting to a place where we can make, or appreciate, that joke means that we have overcome our initial disbelief, our inability to come to terms with the crisis as a part of real life, and have begun to forge ways of living with it.

The editor of The Onion was right when he said, "I don't think the act of laughter negates the act of crying. The two are not mutually exclusive."[35] When the Greeks invented tragedy, they always ended each cycle of three tragedies with a satyr play—a satire. The poet William Butler Yeats said it best, as usual, in "Lapis Lazuli": "Gaiety transfiguring all that dread." Socrates makes this point in Plato's Symposium: "The true poet must be tragic and comic at once, and the whole of human life must be felt as a blend of tragedy and comedy."[36] In an old New Yorker cartoon, the stereotyped bourgeois lady in a hat, talking with a man in an antique store, has just asked a question about a pair of masks of comedy and tragedy that she holds in her two hands, to which the caption is his reply: "I'm sorry, madam, we only sell them as a set." We assume that she wants only the comic mask, but many people want only the tragic.

One way in which the comic and tragic combine is in jokes about heaven and hell, hell being the ultimate destination of gallows humor about death. We have already encountered one joke of this type in The Onion article about the hijackers who found themselves not, as allegedly promised, in heaven, but in hell. My favorite ethnic joke is about heaven and hell:

What is the difference between heaven and hell? In heaven, the English are the policemen, the French are the chefs, the Germans the mechanics, the Italians are the lovers, and the Swiss organize everything. In hell, the Germans are the policemen, the English are the chefs, the French the mechanics, the Swiss are the lovers, and the Italians organize everything.
What I like about this joke is the way that it shortcircuits the usual basis for ethnic jokes, the "us against them" mentality, in which we mock another group for faults which we ourselves presumably do not share.

The joke about the ethnic groups in heaven and hell, by contrast, forces us to mock ourselves, too, and to praise the other side. It proves that irony, especially self-irony, and sympathy are not only not opposed but share at least one essential feature: both are self-distancing.[37] Both pluck us out of our immediate preoccupation with ourselves and our own woes, though in different directions: self-irony allows us to see ourselves through a telescope, while sympathy allows us to see other people no longer through a telescope but through a microscope. The joke about the ethnic groups in heaven and hell catapults us into a world where everyone has both irony and sympathy for themselves and everyone else, so that that everyone has a "right" to make jokes—even gallows jokes—at the expense simultaneously of themselves and the others. This is a world in which I would like to live.

A joke about two other ethnic groups, the Germans and the Viennese, that I learned from my mother, who was Viennese, raises a final principle:

Near the end of the war, as the Allies were advancing toward Berlin, the German high command sent a message to their Viennese counterparts: "The situation is serious but not hopeless [ernst aber nicht hofnungslos]." The Viennese replied, "Here it is quite the opposite: hopeless but not serious [hofnungslos aber nicht ernst]."
Naturally, my mother was on the side of the Viennese, but I think Johan Huizinga was, too, when he wrote that "The play-concept ... is of a higher order than is seriousness. For seriousness seeks to exclude play, whereas play can very well include seriousness."[38] This dialectic culminated in what I regard as the most significant political statement in Homo Ludens: "Nicht der Krieg ist der Ernstfall, sondern der Friede.. . . It is not war that is serious, but peace."[39]

Gallows humor presents us with a world that is hopeless but not serious. After September 11, many people whose initial, quite understandable disinclination was never to get into an airplane again, overcame that nervousness by saying, to themselves and others, "If we stop flying, they win." This formulaic statement became so common that Chicago's Second City comedy troop developed a sketch in which a "clay arts" teacher insists to his depressed class, "If we don't glaze our pottery today, they win,"[40] while the producers of Fox's MADtv rejected a stronger version about "sleazy lawyers declaring that they should defy terrorists by living their lives normally and so it was their patriotic duty to sue their mothers."[41] I want to say, if we stop laughing at our own tragedies, they win. But if we can laugh in the face of the bullies who would destroy us, then we have won. To do this is to say, "Your grim, humorless world is not going to destroy our fragile world of self-mockery. We can still mock ourselves, and you. You are not going to get us. We win." The situation is hopeless but not serious, and, if war is play, peace is all that is serious.


  1. Caryn James, "Live from New York, Permission to Laugh." New York Times, Monday, October 1, 2001, E6.
  2. Personal communication from Annalise Heesterman, December 13, 2001. They joked that "WH" on all the German license plates stood for "Wir Holhlen" [We Take], and Jan Heesterman added that they used to gloss DNB [Deutsche News Buro] as "Do Not Believe."
  3. Urban folklore even gave rise to a legend that the attackers chose September 9 precisely in order to make a joke about 911.
  4. Caryn James, "Live from New York."
  5. Josh Wolk, "Comic Relief," Entertainment Weekly, October 12, 2001, 12-13.
  6. Mark Caro, "Tragedy + time =", Chicago Tribune, November 15, section 5, p. 1.
  7. I am indebted for this insight to Lorraine Daston, personal communication, November 22, 2001.
  8. I am indebted for this insight to Lorraine Daston, personal communication, November 22, 2001.
  9. Josh Wolk, p. 13.
  10. The Onion, vol. 37, number 34, September 24-October 3, 2001. Irrepressible, a later issue of The Onion offered, instead of war bonds, a dildo called "the Star-Spangled Rammer," to stimulate capitalism, the proceeds to go to the relief fund.
  11. Newsweek, October 15, 2001, p. 9.
  12. David Haberman, Acting as a Means of Salvation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
  13. Wendy Doniger, The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); David Shulman and Don Handelman, God Inside Out: Siva's Game of Dice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
  14. Ibid.
  15. I am indebted for this insight to Lorraine Daston, personal communication, November 22, 2001.
  16. Written (with Charles Spaak) and directed by Jean Renoir, staring Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim, Jean Gabin, 1937.
  17. This meaning is present already in the Latin ludo and is attested in English as early as 893.
  18. Review by John Lahr of "The Producers" [the musical] in the New Yorker, May 7, 2001, p. 86, citing a statement made by Mel Brooks to Kenneth Tynam, cited in a New Yorker profile of Mel Brooks in the late seventies.
  19. James Scott, Weapons of the Weak.
  20. Anthony Lane, "This is not a Movie," the New Yorker, September 24, 2001, pp. 79-80.
  21. Ron Moreau, "Delivered from Evil," Newsweek, November 26, 2001, pp. 52-3.
  22. The Onion, op. cit., pp. 1 and 13.
  23. Wendy Doniger, Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 79-87.
  24. Doniger, Splitting the Difference, 255-9.
  25. Robert J. Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, New York: Basic Books, 1986; Doniger, Splitting the Difference, p. 257.
  26. Ted Cohen, Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999, pp. 60 and 69.
  27. Freud had much to say about this in his book Jokes and the Unconscious.
  28. Terry Southern, Now Dig This: The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern (New York: Grove Press, 2001), p. 72. I am indebted to Mike O'Flaherty for this passage.
  29. The word enters official English quite late. It is not in the 1933 Oxford English Dictionary at all, but in the 2001 on-line version defines it as "grim, ironical humor, sick humor." It appears in 1901 in W. D. Howells; in 1935 one citation refers to "what the Germans call gallows -humor"; in 1958, another speaks of "gallows humor that pervades the play." Galgenhumor is also cited as a word used in English: 1912, O. Onions, and 1948, Mencken, "Not a few of these terms show Galgenhumor" (such as "meat-wagon" referring to an ambulance.) W.H. Auden, in 1963, in Dyer's Hand, refers to the gravedigger's scene in Hamlet as an instance of Galgenhumor.
  30. I am indebted to Folkert Jensma, editor in chief of NRC, for passing on this joke to me.
  31. I am indebted to Carol Warshawsky for this story.
  32. "Fast Chat The Onion," Newsweek, October 15, 2001, p. 9.
  33. Josh Wolk, "Comic Relief," pp. 12-13.
  34. Wendy Doniger, The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), chapter 1.
  35. "Fast Chat The Onion," Newsweek, October 15, 2001, p. 9.
  36. Plato, Symposium, 223D; cf. Philebus 50 B.
  37. I am indebted for this insight to Lorraine Daston, personal communication, November 22, 2001.
  38. Huizinga, Homo Ludens, 45.
  39. Huizinga, Homo Ludens, 209-211 (in the German edition), 240-42 (in the English edition).] This is Huizinga's response to Carl Schmidt.
  40. Mark Caro, "Tragedy + time =", Chicago Tribune, November 15, section 5, page 8.
  41. Bryan Tucker, cited by Josh Wolk, "Comic Relief," pp. 12-13.

Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School and a professor in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Among her recent books are The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade (2000) and Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India (1999). "Terror and Gallows Humor: After September 11?" is excerpted from Ms. Doniger's Huizinga Lecture delivered on December 14, 2001, at the University of Leiden.


Copyright notice: ©2001 by Wendy Doniger. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of Wendy Doniger.
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