The old saying goes that comedy equals tragedy plus time. The question, of course, has always been a thorny one: How much time has to pass before tragedy can become comedy, before it's okay to spin a specific harrowing event into humor? If you know your professional comedy, you're probably aware of a now-legendary incident in which Gilbert Gottfried got up in front of a crowd at the Friar's Club in New York City just weeks after the attacks of 9/11 and made a joke about the whole thing. "I have to leave early tonight, I have a flight to California," he said. "I can't get a direct flight — they said I have to stop at the Empire State Building first." Even at a venue as accustomed to gleefully offensive material as the Friar's Club, it was a building too far.
Gilbert got roundly booed. What happened next was the legendary part. In response to the indignant cries of "too soon," he launched into what's now probably the most famous version of the classic "The Aristocrats" joke in comedy history. And he killed. He turned an uncomfortable, even painful moment into one of pure hilarious catharsis.
With that in mind, what to make of one San Antonio mattress store's instantly viral local TV ad that used 9/11 as both a sales pitch and the butt of a tasteless joke? Maybe you've seen this thing by now, given that it's been everywhere over the past 48 hours. It features a woman, Cherise Bonanno, daughter of the owner of "Miracle Mattress," shouting into the camera about the store's big sale this weekend, in honor of 9/11. "What better way to remember 9/11 than with a Twin Tower sale?” she says, obviously tongue-in-cheek. The ad eventually ends with two other employees falling into two towers made of stacked mattresses, knocking them over with Bonanno saying, jokingly, "We'll never forget." Yeah, it's not exactly subtle. But is it so awful that the owner of Miracle Mattress needs to shut down the entire store -- as he has -- while his daughter and employees deserve the death threats they're getting?
I'd argue no. Not by a long shot.
Obviously there's a big difference between a comic making a joke about 9/11, certainly in an enclosed setting or to an audience prepared for it, and a mattress store in San Antonio using it as both a punchline and an excuse for a sale, then blasting it out over the airwaves. There's something undeniably ghastly about selling a product on the backs of 3,000 dead Americans (regardless of the fact that the World Trade Center, in perhaps an amusingly appropriate coincidence, was and still is this country's greatest single beacon of unabashed capitalism -- hence why it was attacked in the first place). But it's obvious the intent of the commercial wasn't malicious, merely stunningly ill-advised. Local ads from across the country have a long, storied tradition of doing crazy shit in the name of drawing eyeballs, in essence providing a certain brand of surreal comedy. This one just misfired in a very big way.
That brings us back to that thorny question: Can we joke about 9/11? Yes, of course we can. I admit that while I covered 9/11 from the ground in New York City, held people in my arms who had lost loved ones, lost my weight in tears day after day, I didn't actually lose a loved one in the attacks. Maybe that disqualifies me from having an opinion. But maybe it's also true that if you believe that, it means we always have to cede every joke to those who may potentially be offended. And here's what that would mean: very little will ever be joked about, because there will always be someone, maybe even many people, who will be offended -- possibly even enraged -- by it. That kind of thing turns the whole world into a college campus, with everything trigger warning-labeled and scrubbed clean so that no one is ever made uncomfortable.
I'm not exactly defending the Miracle Mattress ad. It was a genuinely terrible idea and I can see how it could piss off some people who lived through 9/11, given how the three San Antonio 20-somethings yukking it up in the commercial are probably the furthest-removed carbon based life forms imaginable from the incident. But the sheer audacity of the whole thing -- complete with the rude-as-hell "we'll never forget" coda -- maybe is worth a wide-eyed, shocked laugh simply for how fucked-up it is.
Here's the thing, though: If you're angry at this commercial because it's a specifically horrific comedic misfire and a tasteless attempt to cash in on a tragedy to boot, then fine. But if you're angry at it because you don't think 9/11 can be joked about, even now, 15 years later -- well, let me point you in the direction of Pete Davidson.
Oh, by the way, this is a truly terrible and offensive attempt to cash in on 9/11. At least the San Antonio kids were trying to be funny and not somber.