Three weeks after the Manhattan skyline vanished underneath a cloud of fire and ash, comedians from all over the world gathered at the New York Friars Club to host a roast of Hugh Hefner. Located mere miles away from the rubble still burning from those events that Tuesday morning eleven years ago, the audience sat in an unnerving and awkward silence, wondering when it would be time to laugh again. Or, more correctly, if it would EVER be alright to laugh again. Our world had seemingly changed forever.
The jokes were ones that you would expect given the guest of honor: how Hef had erectile dysfunction, how he had three limbs in the grave, how if Ice T tried to live the same lifestyle, the gangster rapper would be arrested for kidnapping and raping hoards of young white women. And as the comics tiptoed around the line of what was in good taste and what crossed boundaries, all the audience could do was feign laughter, as the elephant in the room weighed heavily on everyone’s conscience.
Enter Gilbert Gottfried.
Gottfried, to many, has the reputation of the creepy old uncle, best known for his voiceover work in kid’s movies. Throughout his career, he has played such diverse roles as parrots, ducks, and other various birds, seemingly as a roués to make it easier to get closer around young children, much in the same vein as an ice cream truck driver or birthday clown.
But to the Friars, Gilbert is a legend, “the comedian’s comedian.” A perpetual line-stepper on the Howard Stern Show, he’s famous for his sharp wit, dirty jokes, and off-hand Holocaust quips that would make even Louis CK think “this guy has some serious problems.”
A nervous unease hushed the crowd as Gottfried took the mic.
“I had intended to catch a plane, but couldn’t get a direct flight because they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.”
For what seemed like an eternity, deathly silence plagued the room, only to be met with hisses, boos, and calls of “too soon!” Gottfried remained at the mic frozen, his eyes dilated and his hands wet as the Hudson River. Then, almost out of survivalist instinct, he pocketed his prepared remarks, and went into a rendition of The Aristocrats so obscene, so over the line of what’s acceptable, that by the time that the punchline came, it had Rob Schneider literally rolling on the floor laughing.
The amazing thing about that story is how, in one moment, one man made it okay to laugh again. Mere blocks away from the rubble, what had held the audience hostage – the fear of addressing the tragedy had finally been brought out in the open. Fear was released from Pandora’s box. The first joke had been made, we had all survived, and now an emotional road to recovery could begin. We could finally enjoy ourselves again.
I had first heard of the unspeakable tragedy that occurred last night on my commute to work this morning. Without really realizing the gravity of the situation, about three minutes later, I sent a buddy a text message making some throwaway joke about the shootings. He laughed, I put away my phone, walked into my building, and went about my day.
See, I’ve always believed that the best way to address fear – fear of the unknown, fear of death, fear of a lost sense of security – has been to dehumanize it, to make jokes about it, to make it seem less terrifying. I always joke about how this is an inevitable result of being a children of divorce, but I think that there’s truth to that. Much like how Herb Brooks would mock the Russians’ facial features and lack of culture in order to transform the 1980 USA Hockey team’s image of the Soviets from machine to men, men who bleed, men who aren’t infallible, I’ve always thought that the best way to confront what scares us is to make that idea less scary.
It was only after I closed the door to my office, and started reading and reflecting about the horrors of last night, that I started to regret that joke text message that I had sent. The image of a random man, cowardly hiding behind a mask, and putting a bullet hole into the head of an infant has a serious way of sobering one’s conscience up. I can’t get that visualization out of my head. It’ll likely haunt me for a couple of nights as I lay in bed trying to sleep.
Carol Burnett once said, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” There’s going to be a time when we’re going to be able to get those images out of our head, and even make light of them. I think it’s healthy for the soul.
But now is not that time. Now is a time to mourn, to reflect, to pray.
This isn’t a regional tragedy. This is a national tragedy. The security blanket that our nation has been protected by since Columbine and Virginia Tech now has a country-sized hole in it. What was once our sanctuary, the freedom to walk down the street or into a building unharmed, is now a reminder that, for all the progress made, the world remains, and will always be, one messed up place.
The day will come when the elephant in the room becomes no larger than a stuffed animal, but we shouldn’t let that day pass too quickly.
Because, while it is healthy to dehumanize fear, we cannot allow us to dehumanize ourselves in the process.