On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded less than two minutes after lift-off, killing all seven astronauts aboard including 37-year-old social studies teacher, Christa McAuliffe, the first-ever private citizen to ride on the shuttle. In the days after the crash, President Reagan postponed his state of the union speech, Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev sent his condolences, and the nation mourned.
The jokes began almost immediately.
Q: What were Christa McAuliffe’s last words to her husband?
A: You feed the kids, I’ll feed the fish.
Q: What do Christa McAuliffe and Donna Rice have in common?
A: They both went down on the challenger.
The Challenger explosion wasn’t the first, nor was it the last tragedy to inspire a wave of sick jokes. Search the Internet and you’ll find plenty of jokes about Princess Di, JFK Jr., and the Waco massacre, just to name a few. As tasteless as they may seem, anthropologists and folklorists say so-called disaster jokes — which some academics actually study in the same way Margaret Mead might ponder the turd of a Samoan tribesman — function as a sort of mass coping strategy. “It’s an attempt to grapple with tragedy,” explains Alan Dundes, a professor of anthropology and folklore at UC Berkeley. “You can either laugh or cry. Most of the time it’s easier to laugh.”
So it was no surprise to Dundes and other folklorists when the first 9/11 jokes started making their appearance after terrorists sent the World Trade Center crumbling. What initially struck Dundes was how long it took for the jokes to begin making e-mail forwarding lists. In most disaster-joke cycles, new ones typically begin circulating within a few days, if not hours, of a tragic event. But according to Dundes, 9/11 jokes didn’t begin appearing regularly for a couple of weeks. “It took a while,” Dundes recalls. “This was a tremendous shock to the country. We just couldn’t believe anyone could do this.”
And once the jokes did appear, they didn’t follow the typical arc of previous disaster-joke cycles, says Bill Ellis, an associate professor of English and American Studies at Penn State University. A typical characteristic of disaster jokes is that they deliver a punchline at the expense of the victims. That didn’t happen after 9/11, at least not on a grand scale.
Even in a forum that embraces tastelessness, victim humor was off-limits. For instance, Sicksites.com — an Internet site that panders to the likes of poop-fetishists — featured pedophile jokes and bin Laden jokes, but not World Trade Center jokes. That, apparently, would have been too much. In fairness, there weren’t a lot of jokes around to post. But they did and do exist:
Q: What was the last thing going through Mr. Jones’ head while sitting on the 90th floor of the WTC?
A: The 91st floor.
Q: Who are the fastest readers in the world?
A: New Yorkers. Some of them go through 110 stories in five seconds.
Why didn’t these jokes catch on? If we could laugh at a social studies teacher “feeding the fishes,” why couldn’t we chuckle about poor Mr. Jones having the 91st floor collapsing his skull? One reason is that the scale and reach of the 9/11 tragedy was far greater than previous disaster-joke fodder, like the Challenger crash. “Everybody is within a very few links of removal from someone who is directly affected by this,” Ellis says. “That tends to hold down almost permanently the kind of humor that would at least be taken as making fun of the victims.” Ellis notes that the Brits, an ocean away from the events of 9/11, appear to engage in most of the gross-out death humor that did get passed around.
The most popular jokes were jingoistic revenge fantasies in which America ultimately prevailed over Osama bin Laden or the Taliban:
Q: How do you play Taliban bingo?
A: B-52 … F-16 … B-1 …
Q: How is bin Laden like Fred Flintstone?
A: Both look out their windows and see Rubble.
Some of the “jokes” were manipulated images, like one showing bin Laden being sodomized with the Empire State Building with the tag line, “You like skyscrapers, huh, bitch?” The revenge shtick ultimately produced jokes that both Dundes and Ellis agree often weren’t funny or clever, even by disaster-joke standards. They were just angry.
“It was essentially eye-for-an-eye humor — you did this to us, man, we’re going to do the same thing to you in spades,” Ellis says. “That’s why a lot of the humor in retrospect was not very humorous.”