Will We Ever Be Able to Laugh About 9/11?

Funny things did happen that day.

It’s funny how 9/11 can still take over a conversation. Y’know, you’ll be at the office, talking about your TPS reports, and notice it’s almost 9/11 and a half an hour later you’re still engaged with stories of where you were when, what you did when you heard. It’s almost always engrossing stuff, as national tragedies don’t tend to get old (though, as Rudy Giuliani learned, using them for political gain does).

What’s not funny about 9/11 is that here we are, 11 years later, and funny stories about 9/11 are still as rare as a Kyle Kendrick Cliff Lee win. Sure, there was that brilliant, galvinizing issue of The Onion that came out on 9/26/2001, The New Yorker’s edgy covers, and Patton Oswalt’s 2007 bit at the tail end of “Wackity Schmackity Doo!,” which likely flew under the radar only because the joke was that 9/11 isn’t something to joke about.

But as the relatively spare “9/11 Humor” page on Wikipedia suggests, it’s somehow still too soon for 9/11 to be anything but maudlin. Which is a shame, because there are times that it seems that this somber reference traps us in the tragedy’s aftermath. This is not to suggest that the defining events of 9/11—planes crashing, buildings crumbling, people dying—will ever be humorous. But dammit, funny things did happen that day. Things that were funny on their own. Things that were funny because of when they happened. And things that were funny strange, not funny ha-ha, but still, y’know, funny. To wit:

A friend of mine who was in grad school at the time and had a big project due, tells this hilarious story about how she and her underslept classmate managed to remain oblivious to the morning’s news as they rushed around to office supply stores looking for a particular type of binder they needed. They were invariably met with incredulity—“You’re looking for a binder?! Today?!”—though no one would explain why. “Yeah, we’ve got a project due tomorrow,” I remember her recalling in the retelling. “Why won’t anyone sell us a freaking binder?”

There’s the story of a friend of a friend who was moving into an apartment in Lower Manhattan that morning. They’d arrived with a truckload of stuff early in the morning, moved it in and opened up all their windows to air the place out before departing to retrieve another truckload of stuff. It was while they were making their second trip that the planes hit, meaning that by the time there were allowed back into their apartment weeks later, it was covered with soot and debris. It’s more an unlucky coincidence than funny, but there’s a certain dark humor there.

A co-worker related to me the story of his visit to New York with his children not long after the attacks. Moved and distracted, while passing someone with a bucket of tiny turtles for sale, he absentmindedly reached in and picked one up, forgetting that turtles are tiny salmonella factories. Luckily New York was thick with first-aid workers, one of whom volunteered to sterilize his hands. Strange.

And then there are just the odd, funny ways that day turned everything upside down. Tuesday, September 11th, was a deadline day at City Paper, where I was music editor at the time. At the end of a long production day made longer by the fact that we changed our cover and cover story at the last minute, a bunch of us went across the street to the Khyber—because going home didn’t feel like an option—and we bought our bartender drinks, because the look on her face suggested she’d spent most of her shift pulling drinks in a way that was more heroic than she’d probably ever get credit for. It’s funny, and a little poignant, too (cuz that’s allowed) that the unsung heroes that day were the nation’s bartenders.

Sometimes I feel like we need a “Something Funny Happened to Me on 9/11” story slam or a 9/11 bad joke contest (“I just flew into the Twin Towers … and boy are my arms tired!”), or just a place where it’s okay to say, this happened on 9/11, and it made me laugh. In fact, if you’ve got a funny 9/11 story, tell it now, here.