Yesterday marked Jay Leno's return to late night television for the first time since the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings, but not with his characteristic, infectious chuckle. Instead, the "Tonight" show host traded his opening monologue for an emotion-choked soliloquy in which he said that America had been "sucker punched" and that the country was now waging "the good fight" against its assailants.
Leno's sober tone was matched by that of other comedians, such as CBS's David Letterman, and Bill Maher, of ABC's "Politically Incorrect," who went back on the airwaves this week to an audience with little appetite for levity.Conan O'Brien, who hosts NBC's "Late Night," groped for meaning during his return yesterday, describing his program as "inconsequential" and discussing his own piety. "I don't know exactly how we're going to do this, to get back and make sense of our lives when absolutely nothing makes sense," O'Brien told his audience.
Comedy Central, the cable television channel devoted to humor, has been airing reruns of its satirical news program, "The Daily Show," since the attacks and will probably do so throughout this week, says Tony Fox, a spokesman for the channel.
Comedy Central has also been avoiding potentially offensive or sensitive programming, like movies involving terrorism and disasters, and also shows with disparaging references to President Bush, Fox adds.
But Fox says that in the aftermath of the suicide hijackings, executives at the channel decided to continue broadcasting humor -- a move he says was inspired by the advice of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. "We got a lot of e-mails from viewers who thanked us for that," Fox adds.
Fox agrees that the scope of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, which may have claimed as many as 6,000 lives, changed boundaries of comics and comedy, at least for a time.
"This seems so consuming, it's just different" from other national disasters, he says.
Even the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 occurred against the backdrop of other world news, Fox adds, and while that event did lead to a brief pause in jokes, comics turned their attention to other sources of amusement.
The iconoclastic Maher told National Public Radio: "It will not be that long before people are laughing, because we're going to want to ridicule our government for being so inept at protecting us -- which is their job, after all. We're mad at the terrorists, we're mad at the airlines. There's a lot of places where exaggeration, sarcasm, belittlement, all the tools of humor are going to come into play as a weapon in our arsenal to recover from this, and that is appropriate."
Many Americans are in desperate need of a good laugh, Fox adds. "People need comedy more than ever now," he says.
Ed Dunkelblau, a psychologist specializing in the humor impulse, says people shouldn't feel ashamed or guilty about their urge to tell jokes and laugh at jokes, as long as they're considerate about the sensitivities of their audience.
"Trying to laugh too close to the tragedy feels disrespectful," says Dunkelblau, who directs the Institute for Emotionally Intelligent Learning in Hoffman Estates, Ill. "But people need an opportunity to release."
Dunkelblau has spent the last week debriefing people and groups on their emotions about the attacks, and he says he's seen very few attempts at public humor.
But in private, among family and friends, he says, many people are trying to laugh. "It's a safer, more trusted laughter," says Dunkelblau, who is a past president of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor.
"What we know is that in order for something to be perceived as funny, the audience has to be in play mode. If not, nothing will seem funny," Dunkelblau says.
"I think we've seen a grievous blow to our emotional being, which puts humor on the back burner," adds Steven Sultanoff, an Irvine, Calif. psychologist and a past president of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor.
The ability to laugh will soon return, Sultanoff predicts, but it will do so at different paces for different people. Some who were touched more profoundly by the disaster will doubtless be offended, hurt or angry by what they might regard as flippancy of others. "I think that's partly why the comedians are being very careful about using humor at this point," he says.
Jokes, often sick jokes, are quick to follow other tragedies. Leno leapfrogged to the top of the late-night heap with a conscious decision to make light of the O.J. Simpson case -- a case that centered around the brutal murder of two people. Letterman's "Late Show" stayed away from the Simpson case for months, by which time his ratings were consistently below Leno's. Two genuine constitutional crises -- President Clinton's impeachment and last year's presidential election -- were lampooned with jokes about oral sex and dimpled chads. It also didn't take long for people to crack wise about the Challenger disaster or the plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr.
And signs of the humor impulse are now surfacing on the Internet. One e-mail making the rounds contains a doctored photo of an imagined new World Trade Center. It consists of five towers bunched together in the rough outline of a fist -- with a soaring and defiant middle tower extending well above the rest.
What To Do
To learn more about the psychology of humor, try the Encylopedia of Psychology.
For more on the healing powers of laughter, try the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor.