Race. Ethnicity. 9/11. WHEN COMICS CROSS THE LINE

Article excerpt


Hey, did you hear the one about the World Trade Center?

Probably not.

Although it's been five years, you'll still be hard-pressed to find a joke about 9/11. Sure, there are wisecracks about bin Laden and airport security, but jokes about the attacks have been slow in entering the mainstream. Now some are popping up on Web sites and even on a morning radio show heard locally.

Why the wait? After all, there were jokes within hours of Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle's plane crash into the side of another New York building in October. And you can turn on Leno and hear him crack about Michael Jackson and child molestation. You tune into the animated South Park and see Santa Claus get electrocuted by terrorists.

Carlos Mencia uses the n-word and his audience laughs. Andy Dick uses it at a Los Angeles comedy club and apologizes.

It's almost as if there are unwritten rules in a medium we generally consider boundless. The dozen comedians and behaviorists we consulted agree that's the case.

Most people have a particularly hard time laughing at events that leave most of us feeling violated.

"It requires detachment to be able to appreciate the humor," said Keith Durkin, an Ohio Northern University sociologist who studies humor.

Which is why it was hard for even the edgiest comedians to sell early 9/11 jokes without couching them somehow. Legendary comedian George Carlin said in an interview with the Times-Union last week there are lines in comedy that some comedians don't cross because of fear. He said they should. But when comedian Bill Maher crossed that line six days after the attacks, he lost his television show. ABC canceled Politically Incorrect when he called Americans cowards for firing cruise missiles into Afghanistan from thousands of miles away.

There are no written rules in comedy that guarantee either a hardy laugh or a steely glare from the audience, our experts said. But the joke's success depends a lot on the comedian telling the joke, the delivery, the timing and the environment in which the joke is told.


Race, homosexuality, ethnicity and handicaps - all volatile topics - are frequently joked about but only by certain comedians.

"If you are a minority it gives you a little more leeway. Where if you are in the majority, it's like you're beating up a little person, so it seems wrong," said Jimmy Brogan, a stand-up comedian who wrote for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for nine years.

If you are a white comedian you can't use the n-word and call it comedy. Just ask Richards, who used the racial slur repeatedly in an anger-filled response to being heckled. He earned the ire of not only his audience but also of his fellow comedians.

Material we find funny also depends a lot on our expectations of the comedian telling the joke. Audiences who pay to see an insult comedian are prepared for the offensive nature of the commentary and are less likely to be offended.

When Michael Richards, who played Kramer on the hit TV show Seinfield, was lambasted late last month, it didn't help that audiences expect him to get laughs with his physical comedy.

For insult comedians everyone is fair game.

"There is nothing I won't joke about. Absolutely nothing," said Lisa Lampanelli, aptly dubbed "Comedy's Lovable Queen of Mean."

Lampanelli said she consistently crosses lines but gets away with it because she is likable and people come to the shows expecting outrageous insults. As a woman, she is also a member of an "oppressed" group, which could contribute to her credibility as an equal-opportunity basher.

Mencia, a widely popular Comedy Central star, frequently riffs about race in his act. He's Hispanic and often uses racial slurs when he talks about crossing borders and racial profiling at the airport.

Brogan, who bills himself as a clean comic, said he doesn't do any jokes about what people are born with, whether it be race or a disability. …