New Directions in Folklore 6 June 2002
Newfolk :: NDiF :: Issue 6 :: Chapter 1 ::
Page 1:: Page 2 :: Chapter 2 :: References

Making a Big Apple Crumble:

The Role of Humor in Constructing a Global Response to Disaster1

Bill Ellis

Chapter One: Introduction

On the morning of September 11, 2001, terrorists associated with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida, a fundamentalist Islamic political movement, hijacked four American jetliners. Two were crashed into the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, causing them to collapse with catastrophic loss of life. A third was crashed into the Pentagon, costing an additional 189 lives, while passengers on a fourth evidently attacked the hijackers, causing the plane to crash in a rural area in western Pennsylvania with the loss of all 44 persons aboard. Much of the drama was played out live on national television, including the crash of the second plane into the South Tower at 9:03 AM and both towers' collapse, at 10:05 and 10:30 AM respectively.

The tragedy sent shock waves through American culture not felt since the equally public tragedy of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. To be sure, the September 11 terrorist attacks were preceded by other anxiety-producing terrorist events: previous acts such as the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking and the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland had inspired previous cycles of disaster humor. However, neither the first terrorist bombing at the World Trade Center in 1993 nor the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 had the international impact of the new attacks. Tony Fox, a spokesman for the cable network Comedy Central, recalled that the Oklahoma City bombing did cause a brief suspension of humor, but satirists soon turned their attention to other newsworthy events. "This seems so consuming, it's just different" from other national disasters, he told a reporter (Marcus 2001).

Folk culture played a central role in the process of allowing common citizens to react to the anxieties raised by these horrific events. Sylvia Grider (2001) has documented the spontaneous shrines created within hours to commemorate the dead. A series of ceremonies on Friday, September 14, reaffirmed key values, some involving institutional leaders, such as the televised memorial at Washington's National Cathedral led by evangelist Billy Graham and President George W. Bush. Many others were held around the country, on that day and during the days following. Patriotic displays became commonplace and remained in place alongside traditional decorations for Halloween and Christmas.

Other, equally important reactions took the form of verbal and computer-generated art. Statements of solidarity and patriotic resolve, in the form of testimonies, poems, and images circulated widely. On a less formal level, rumors and legends concerning the terrorists and the events were generated and spread quickly. And, in a well-anticipated stage of this process, disaster humor was created, both immediately after the event and regularly over then next six weeks. This body of emergent humor, which I (and others) termed "World Trade Center (WTC) Humor," provides a large and revealing body of folklore to examine how Americans dealt with the psychological challenge that the terrorist acts meant.

This study will look closely at the emergence of WTC humor as a phenomenon, partially documented in previously unobtainable detail, partially facilitated by the Internet's ability to link the nation and indeed the world as one simultaneously present community. This new sense of community challenges our previous assumption that folklore is the property of small, localized groups. When groups regularly communicate across geographical boundaries, what traditional factors of folklore remain the same, and what factors now constitute "contemporary" folklore in every sense of the world?

In my earlier essay, "A Model for Collecting and Interpreting World Trade Center Disaster Jokes"(2001) (subsequently referred to as "Model"), I argue that such humor marks an important part of a community's response to tragedy. I argued that disaster jokes do not simply appear singly, but emerge as a cycle out of a phenomenon with a recognizable structure. It follows predictable patterns: for instance, a "latent period" immediately after the disaster during which joking is suppressed, nominally out of respect for those grieving. When jokes appear, they express stages of coping with the aftermath of the event, so the earliest jokes in the Challenger cycle focused on scapegoats, while later jokes moved toward closure by "domesticating" the key images of the disaster. My model predicted that the WTC jokes would follow a similar pattern:

  1. This cycle will emerge, in a series of waves, after a period of latency.
  2. One or more of the common WTC jokes will reference the dominant visual images of the tragedy.
  3. The WTC jokes will recycle elements from previous cycles.
  4. The dominant mode of distributing WTC jokes will be e-mail.

Humor, even if it does not directly comment on tragic events, is often perceived as painful for those affected. Even those directly affected by a disaster, such as the emergency rescue workers surveyed by Moran and Massam (1997), find themselves caught in an awkward bind, needing black humor to cope with the horror of events but not being able to justify their actions to others. Thus much of the immediate humor might never be recorded, and indeed participants find it difficult to remember after the shock of the event is over. It is therefore difficult to know exactly what kinds of humor emergency workers at Ground Zero circulated orally among themselves during the days after the event. We do know that it existed: a New York City comedy writer who visited Ground Zero on September 19 recorded this example of black humor:

I was talking to these two firemen. One was about 28. The other was about 40. The younger fireman told me that after the south tower collapsed he and his partner were running toward the north tower to get people out. His buddy got hit by the body of a person who had jumped. He had to get him medical attention; he ended up dying. Thirty seconds later, the north tower collapsed. Had this fireman's buddy not gotten hit, both of them would have died.

There was a pause in the story, and that's when the older fireman turned to him and said, "Is this going to be a long story?" I thought to myself these guys have certainly earned the right to joke (Ferrante 2002: 28).

Clearly such workers needed such black humor to cope with the horrors with which they had to deal. But the larger public affected by the disaster were still expressing violent anger when such forms of joking became public, as we shall see. In the case of a "media disaster" such as the September 11 events, the graphic details of death and destruction are shared with a mass audience, who must then improvise ways of coping with them in a way seen as socially acceptable.

Once the threat of the disaster is no longer imminent, the role of folklore turns to assigning blame, internally and externally, and to "naming" the most threatening elements of past events, and humor inevitably takes a role in these processes. However, a significant number of citizens at large must reach closure before jokes become strategically successful. That is, so long as the primary response to a joke is to see it as socially inappropriate, neither the person telling the joke nor those who hear it will be encouraged to pass it on. As the response becomes more mixed, with more people signaling that they find a joke funny, then the rewards of passing it on begin to outweigh the risks, and more people will be willing to forward on such humor. In the past, this shift has taken place rather suddenly, in which jokes appear in an intense but short-lived cycle that signals Americans' readiness to gain control over the most dissonant images in the disaster and so reach closure in their grieving process.

The role played by the Internet in circulating and indeed creating such cycle jokes, I anticipated, would be important. Although the web of persons directly and indirectly affected by this disaster was unquestionably large, still it was not omnipresent, so joking could take place almost at once with little social risk of hurting someone directly involved in the catastrophe. The distancing effect of the Internet likewise enables persons to propose and circulate jokes anonymously, and with little risk of social retaliation. Thus I reasoned that computer mediation would encourage disaster lore and in fact be its primary mode of circulation.

However, folkloristics has not to date exploited Internet-circulated lore or dealt directly with its potential. Communities who constitute themselves virtually, as Simon Bronner (2002) has said, "form around multiple, overlapping interests that go well beyond the formations of race, ethnicity, class, and gender." Media disasters, I noted in "Model," are instantaneously global, and WTC humor might reflect this "community of the world," just as material circulating immediately after the terrorist strikes reflected worldwide concern and support for Americans. It was therefore essential to observe how the Internet has impacted the folk process, and in so doing recognize its value as a resource for studying phenomena like the emergence and spread of contemporary legends and disaster humor.

I asked fellow folklorists to be ready to receive, gather, and transmit WTC jokes to me as they came to their attention. As a result, I received collections of Internet-collected humor from a number of folklorists.2 Thanks to a tip from Alan E. Mays, I followed these leads using the newly upgraded Groups metasearch. This feature gives folklorists access to some 700 million archived messages on Usenet message boards, including many posted in the immediate wake of the disaster, allowing us to follow spontaneous conversations among participants of these message boards3 and see both how jokes emerge and what social responses they provide. Also, since the search engine allows one to sort results by date, it was possible to trace the history of many items, giving hints as to the culture and subculture from which they arose and allowing us to determine when they peaked in popularity.

As a result, we can now observe the emergence of WTC jokes in unprecedented detail. We can now more accurately date and plot the various waves, confirming the theory presented in "Model," that media disasters provoke humor of a certain predictable kind, and that participation in it is not deviant but normal and predictable. There were surprises; in particular jokes arising in Great Britain did not spread as readily to American conduits and vice versa. But overall, seeing WTC humor as a phenomenon, not as a miscellaneous collection of texts, produces a much clearer image of how humor functioned to construct a social response to disaster that allowed participants to move toward closure and "business as usual." continue

Page Notes

1.The author thanks Camille Bacon-Smith, Simon Bronner, Christie Davies, and Marilyn Jorgensen for reading and offering valuable suggestions on the several preliminary drafts of this essay.

2.Notably Regina Bendix, Simon Bronner, Christie Davies, Norine Dresser, Joseph P. Goodwin, William Hansen, Sandy Hobbs, Marilyn Jorgensen, and Alan E. Mays.

3. Such material is assumed to be in the public domain; however, out of consideration for the privacy of the persons whose virtual conversations I have observed, I have in all cases omitted e-mail addresses and signatures that would allow them to be identified. (In many cases, these are bogus or unobtainable anyhow.) I have, in all cases, identified the names of the message boards on which the jokes were posted along with the dates of the messages, so that researchers can easily revisit the original postings.

Newfolk :: NDiF :: Issue 6 :: Chapter 1 ::
Page 1:: Page 2 :: Chapter 2 :: References