They say that comedy is tragedy plus time. What they don't say is how much time it takes to turn a massive death toll into a laugh riot.
Three weeks after Sept. 11, Gilbert Gottfried announced to New York's Friars Club that he couldn't get a direct flight to California: "They said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first." According to the New York Observer, the joke was followed by silence, then hooting, then a cry of "Too soon!" Last month, the city of New Orleans released a schedule of events to mark the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, including a fireworks show and a comedy hour. Two weeks later, those events were dumped. According to Mayor Ray Nagin's office, the cancellations had nothing to do with the fact that the announcement had been met with disbelief and disgust. "Given the time we have, they could not be implemented," a mayoral spokesperson said.
The revised schedule of events—a ceremonial wreath laying, a citywide interfaith service—shouldn't be taken as a sign that New Orleans has become a somber place. Rather, it's evidence that comedy is tragedy plus timing—it's generally not a good idea to do stand-up at a memorial service. In the absence of Mayor Nagin's Good Time Katrina Laff-a-Thon, I checked in on a smaller event over the weekend: a "humor therapy" session at a French Quarter record store. So, what's so funny about a devastating hurricane?
Comic Mike Strecker, who bills himself as "Jerry Seinfeld … with less money and more problems," started with some observational humor about evacuee dating. After leaving New Orleans for Houston, he said, he met a lovely young lady at a local watering hole. "Would you like to go back to my place?" he asked. When she responded in the affirmative, he replied plaintively, "Yeah, so would I." Strecker scored biggest with his material on the rituals of Katrina story swapping. "It used to be if you had a tree down in your front yard, you had a story to tell," he said. Now, it takes a bit more to win sympathy: "We got six and a half feet of water and we can't find grandma. We were blessed."
Katrina might have devastated most of the city's industries, but it was a huge boon for novelty-song writers. Strecker was joined onstage by avuncular middle school teacher/funnyman David "The Nac" Naccari, who plucked the song "Katrinalaya" ("Oh, hurricane, you're a pain, me oh my oh/ 'Cause the bowl that I called home is filling up-oh") on his ukulele. Maryflynn Thomas did a rendition of "Send in the Clowns" in which the head jester was deposed FEMA chief Michael Brown. And the Desoto Street Band performed a tune sung to the melody of "Fever": "FEMA/ Call 'em in the morning/ Be on hold through the night."*
Strecker's set and the musical performances reveal the two schools of post-Katrina humor. On one side, there's political lampooning—making fun of the missteps and fumblings of the federal and local governments. On the other, there's gallows humor—the "grandma's dead" school of comedy.
Satire wasn't a viable outlet after the Sept. 11 attacks. The absence of jokes after the Twin Towers fell—the so-called "end of the age of irony"—came about because government incompetence, while discernible and copious, couldn't begin to overshadow the absolute villainy of the attacks. In the case of Katrina, the buffoonery of the mayor, the governor, and the feds was largely responsible for the deaths of well over 1,000 people and easy to lampoon—cue the late-night monologues. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras is the city's annual festival of public drunkenness and political satire, an officially sanctioned window to vent frustration about the powers that be. This year, FEMA and the Corps of Engineers were the biggest targets. A band of merrymakers outfitted themselves with canes, dark glasses, and T-shirts reading "Levee Inspectors." The makeshift "Krewe of FEMA" paraded a day late and handed out Bead Request Forms that could be exchanged for trinkets at a later date.
The grandma's dead school of comedy means railing at your house, your street, your family, your neighbors, your life. The first signs of gallows humor in the city came while the water was still rising. On Aug. 30, 2005, this anti-looting message showed up on the outside of a St. Charles Avenue rug shop: "DON'T TRY I AM SLEEPING INSIDE WITH A BIG DOG AN UGLY WOMAN TWO SHOTGUNS AND A CLAW HAMMER." A few days later, the sign changed: "STILL HERE. WOMAN LEFT FRI. COOKING A POT OF DOG GUMBO."
In the weeks after the storm, Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose became the city's most notable practitioner of gallows humor. The erstwhile celebrity columnist roamed the city and transcribed the fears, the despair, and the strangeness. In the introduction to the paperback compilation of his columns, 1 Dead in Attic, Rose says he received 1,000 phone calls and more than 10,000 e-mails from readers in the last few months of 2005. He's also become a huge hit on the local lecture circuit—my parents are among the scores of people who've lined up to see him speak.
One of Rose's most memorable essays began thusly: "It has been said to me, almost a dozen times in exactly the same words: 'Everyone here is mentally ill now.' " The article then told the tale of Rose's friends, who jumped for joy when their roof suddenly collapsed, thus ensuring that they could file a homeowner's claim. "Our home is destroyed. Oh, happy day," he wrote. "I submit there's something not right there."