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Washington Post

Comic Relief
Humor Helps a Nation Come to Terms With Terrorism-Induced Anxiety

By Romy Ribitzky

May 10 — On Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, laughter was the last thing on Paul Fucito's mind. Moments after he learned that terrorists had attacked New York City, he felt the impact of American Airlines Flight 77 as it crashed into the Pentagon, blocks away from his office."

The rest of the day was chaotic," says the public relations specialist for George Washington University Law School. "People were running everywhere, phone lines were dead, and it took me two and a half hours to get in touch with my wife — who was working at the Commerce Department across the mall from the Pentagon that day — and make sure she was OK."

But during the difficult days that followed, Fucito acknowledges he was able to take temporary comfort in the occasional e-mail poking fun of the war on terrorism, or his co-workers' jokes about living and working in "al Qaeda's Bulls-Eye" — Washington, D.C.And now, seven months later, laughter is once again a natural pastime at the office.

For instance, on April 15 — known to most Americans as Tax Day — the FBI issued an alert to D.C.-area banks, and although it was taken seriously, the alert quickly sparked humorous exchanges. "At the office," Fucito says, "we jokingly said it was too bad the threats weren't called in to the IRS."He adds: "If humor is a way to deal with trying to feel normal again, then we're well on our way."

Tickle Your Funny Bones

The beneficial effects of humor have been enlisted for years to help people cope with everything from mild anxiety to cancer. "If you can look at something scary and find a way to manipulate the image into something funny, you can assert a control over it," says Mark Gorkin, a Washington, D.C.-based clinical social worker and America Online's "psychohumorist." Laughter has real physiological effects. It releases endorphins, the body's natural painkillers and mood enhancers. Laughter improves air exchange in the lungs, helps relax skeletal muscles and the body overall, and raises the heart rate and blood pressure in the same way an aerobic workout does.In fact, studies have shown that two minutes of belly laughter is equivalent to 10 minutes on a rowing machine.

Humor can also serve to lessen the hierarchy between individuals, establish rapport, and decrease social distance, thereby lifting the spirit, says Karyn Buxman, a registered nurse from Hannibal, Mo., who is a leading proponent and practitioner of therapeutic humor." Humor relieves anxiety and tension, serves as an outlet for hostility and anger, and provides a healthy escape from reality," Buxman says.In the days after the attacks, she says, "There was a sense of 'Let's get through this together.' We had to laugh or we were just going to die."

‘Can We Be Funny?’

But as people tried to come to terms with the grim post-Sept. 11 reality, their reaction to this tragedy differed dramatically from that of others. For instance, experts recall that it took a mere 24 hours for gentle jokes to start circulating after the fatal explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, even as the event left the nation in shock and mourning. Not so with the terror attacks, says Boston College's Paul Lewis. "This thing really shut down American culture," says the English professor and humor researcher. "[Humor newspaper] The Onion paused publication, The New Yorker stopped running cartoons, and late-night comedians Jay Leno, David Letterman and others were replaced by nonstop news coverage."

By most accounts, it was more than a week before the country let out one of its first collective chuckles, as Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels asked then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the show's opening moments, "Can we be funny?" Giuliani's deadpan response: "Why start now?"

‘Osama, Yo Mama’

Over time, as America groped to deal with Sept. 11's weighty issues, humor returned, albeit darkly. The nation's late-night comic icons reclaimed the airwaves, and humor publications rolled off the presses. Early jokes targeted Osama bin Laden and the terrorists, predominantly on the Internet. But despite the new technology's role in spreading the humor, "the way we joked about the Taliban is not much different from the way we joked about the Axis powers of World War II," says Lewis." How many times have we shot bin Laden on the Internet, but we can't find him yet [in real life]?" he adds. "Humor, in this sense, is a manifestation of our desires and anxieties."

The actual tragedy remained off limits, emphasizes Paul Friday, chief of clinical psychology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center-Shadyside. But rather quickly, digs at New York City's expense became standard fare. Two weeks after the attack, for example, The Onion returned to the newsstands, proclaiming that the "Rest of the country temporarily feels deep affection for New York." Leno joked about the newly security-conscious metropolis: "I'm walking through Central Park today on my lunch hour — this is how tight security is — I saw a squirrel X-raying his nuts." And the New Yorker issued its much talked about "New Yorkistan" cover, which sarcastically labeled neighborhoods in Manhattan and surrounding areas as "Fuhgeddabouditstan" or "Central Parkistan."

"Poking gentle fun at ourselves is a good sign that we're healing because we can look back and see the humor in our own actions and reactions," says Buxman.

Mind If I Laugh?

For all its benefits, humor also possesses the power to hurt others, especially because the attacks shook Americans so badly.Case in point: Comedian Joan Rivers recently found herself in hot water after she made fun of how disappointed New York firefighters' widows might be if their husbands were suddenly found alive, since they would have to return huge sums of money in government aid.

Not everyone will be able to appreciate such attempted humor, least of all those who have been directly affected — either because they lost a family member in the attacks, or lived near the affected areas, says Friday. In the end, like all good jokes, the key is in the timing. "During the first few weeks following the attacks, like most of the nation, we were all nervous," says Fucito. "But we've all adjusted, and humor seems to help. People are still concerned, as am I, but if we continue to dwell on things we cannot control, we will become miserable and the terrorists will have won. Humor is a great way of diffusing the terror."