At the midnight screening for The Avengers last night, most of the trailers were for upcoming heroic films: The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man, Brave, etc. But the one that stood out the most was The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen‘s upcoming comedy where he plays the ruler of the fictional republic of Wadiya, who is stripped of his beard and his power when he visits the United States. He has to learn how to live as a normal citizen, complete with soup kitchen shifts and White House rallies, so there’s a clear dramatic arc here.
But what most struck me about the trailer was how blase the jokes about blowing up beloved New York City monuments were. John C. Reilly‘s government agent character cracks a joke along the lines of, “I highly recommend you visit the Empire State Building, before you or one of your cousins takes it down.” But the funniest sequence came at the very end, when Aladeen and his friend are flying in a helicopter with two Americans: They’re chattering to each other about “I can’t wait to see the fireworks display on top of the Statue of Liberty,” but of course it comes out as “Terrorist terrorist Statue of Liberty [kaboom]!” The white people lose their shit, and the helicopter careens out of control. The trailer’s been out for a month now, but it was the first time I’d seen it. And everyone in the theater howled.
Of course, it was midnight and we were all hyped up on Red Bull and anticipation of Joss Whedon‘s movie. We thought everything in the trailer was hilarious, including Aladeen throwing a trashcan onto a taxicab and kicking a fat kid. But I don’t know if I can blame it on that specific atmosphere… and I don’t know how I feel about the fact that it’s officially OK to poke fun at Americans about 9/11.
It’s not as if this is the first time that Sacha Baron Cohen has challenged Americans: Borat and Bruno captured the racist and homophobic attitudes in our fair country. And even though those are based in some part on feeling threatened, it is uncomfortable seeing a gag built entirely on the utter fear that two citizens would feel thinking two terrorists are en route to blowing up the Statue of Liberty. But then again, this joke was entirely at our expense, as was my next example.
It didn’t even take ten years for terrorism to be funny again. The 30 Rock season 1 episode “Fireworks” saw Jack Donaghy planning a lavish fireworks display at the Empire State Building. But instead the explosions went off in Midtown, appearing instead as a terrorist attack and panicking New York’s citizens. That was 2007. I know that humor is an ideal defense against grief and terror, but… I’m curious if all disaster now carries with it a statute of limitations.