Mocking Bin Laden

Late night comics' barrage of barbs shows we get the last laugh

By Jere Hester
|  Wednesday, May 4, 2011  |  Updated 12:34 AM CDT
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The first "Saturday Night Live" after 9/11 began with an inspirational speech by then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, followed by a somber rendition of "The Boxer" by Paul Simon.

Then the show's producer, Lorne Michaels, a band of weary firefighters and cops behind him, asked Giuliani a question that hung heavily in the frightening fog that clouded life in New York in the weeks after the attacks: "Can we be funny?"

"Why start now?" Giuliani deadpanned.

The moment signaled it was okay for comedians to get back to the business of making us laugh at a time when we needed distraction most.

Nearly a decade later, Osama bin Laden’s failure to destroy our resilience could be seen, albeit in a modest way, in the jokes about his death that filled the late-night airwaves Monday.

"We're back, baby!" Jon Stewart declared on "The Daily Show" Monday night.

It was a far cry from late September of 2001, when a tearful Stewart invoked images of the Statue of Liberty and Martin Luther King as he struggled with how to be funny again following the nation's saddest tragedy: "They said go back to work, and there were no jobs available for a man in the fetal position under his desk crying."

On Monday, Stewart gleefully mocked bin Laden with bogus movie posters like, "Bye Bye Beardie" and "To Kill a Mockingturd."

On "The Tonight Show," Jay Leno played a doctored clip of President Obama doing backflips down the East Room red carpet after his Sunday night announcement that our worst enemy had been eliminated.

David Letterman – whose finest moment may have come in his first show after 9/11 when he declared, "There is only one requirement for any of us, and that is to be courageous" – offered a Top 10 list Monday titled, "Final Words of Osama bin Laden."

"What on earth could be interrupting 'Celebrity Apprentice'?" and "See, this why I don't normally answer the door," were two of the funnier entries.

In another sign of how far we've come, Letterman, whose first post-9/11 guest was a solemn then-CBS News anchor Dan Rather, enjoyed a more relaxed chat Monday with NBC News' Brian Williams, who joked about Abbottabad, where U.S. forces took out Bin Laden.

"I've been calling this place 'Bada Bing' for 24 hours," Williams quipped.

Humor can be effective at chipping away at the power of evil – laughter can help us tame our fears. In the last century, Charlie Chaplin started the job against Hitler in “The Great Dictator” and Mel Brooks finished the task a quarter-century later with “The Producers.”

As Giuliani declared on that landmark “SNL”: “We will not yield to terrorism.... We choose to live our lives in freedom.”

This week’s installment of “SNL” is set to be hosted by Tina Fey, which ordinarily would spur chatter over whether she’ll reprise her Sarah Palin imitation. But the biggest draw this week will be seeing how the show tackles Bin Laden’s demise – and gets the last laugh.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.


 

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