“War on Terror” Humor: An Untapped Niche

Posted on May 20, 2013


Why is there no sitcom about bumbling terrorists and counterterrorism agents?

Last Thursday, I wrote about the rather cartoonish arrest of Ryan Fogle in Moscow.  To illustrate that cartoonishness, I settled on Maxwell Smart from the 1960s sitcom Get Smart, but I also ran across this image of Boris and Natasha with a big bomb intended for the US, and that got me to thinking.


You know, I would bet that no cartoonist could get away with this image today.  Somehow, we have lost the ability to use humor to diffuse our fears.  I can hear it now:  [Huffily] “Well, there’s nothing funny about terrorism.”  [Righteous, shrill indignation] “Do you think those people who were at the Boston bombing think this is funny?”

To which I would say:  gawd, get a grip, people.  Humor is not about making fun of victims or tragedy.  It’s about making fun of your enemy, making fun of the threat, and in so doing, depriving it of some of its psychological power over us.

Lest anyone think, all these years later, that the Cold War was somehow quaint and no big deal, think again.  Winston Churchill gave his “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946, marking our erstwhile WWII ally as a rival.  Once the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons in 1949, the Cold War was on in earnest; it seemed as if America – and the West overall –  collectively feared annihilation by the Godless Communists at any moment.   People absolutely were afraid, as these interviews by Minnesota Public Radio attest.  Let’s recall things like the 1950s duck and cover drills for school children everywhere; the witch-hunt atmosphere of the McCarthy Hearings and Hollywood blacklisting in the 1950s; or the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.  In high school in the 1970s, one of my classmates berated me for not taking the Soviet threat seriously enough:  “They’re not like us!  We don’t know what they’ll do!”  President Reagan could refer to the Soviet Union in 1983 as an “evil empire” without the least hint of irony.  This fearful, adversarial atmosphere went on right up to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

And right in the middle of it all, there was the bumbling Boris Badenov and his ill-fated cartoon schemes against America; Get Smart with Maxwell Smart, a bumbling CONTROL agent, working against our equally bumbling nemesis, KAOS (for the record, this was the only “spy” show that made my Cold-Warrior Dad actually laugh); there was Mad Magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy” comic series, with more bumbling spies.  See the common thread?  all of these bumbling, incompetent spies with their ineffective gadgets debuted in the 1960s, with the rise of television and right after the 1961 Berlin Crisis and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that sent Americans scurrying for their government pamphlets on how to build underground bunkers in their own back yards.  Somehow, at the height of Cold-War paranoia, we were able to see Boris and Natasha with their bomb intended for the US as funny, not threatening.

After a brief period of strutting our stuff and feeling pretty smug about “winning” the Cold War, America was shocked by 9/11.  But that was nearly a dozen years ago now, and terrorism is still something that we can’t seem to joke about.  Why?  What makes it different from the Godless-Communist-Nuclear-Destruction threat?

It’s not a fear of Arabs, Jihad or the Middle East.  We could joke about Arabs and Jihad – in reference to Iraq – on the eve of the Gulf War in 1990, and it was funny:


I do not advocate poking fun at Islam per se (that only leads to trouble, and besides, it’s just not classy), but where are the cartoons of bumbling terrorists endlessly blowing themselves up, Boris-Badenov-style?  Why can’t we poke fun at that?  I mean – sure, there are editorial cartoons on these topics, but why is there no sitcom about a DHS-like agency’s bumbling efforts against an equally incompetent, vaguely Middle Eastern terrorist organization, in the tradition of Get Smart?

Is the “War on Terror” just devoid of imagination while the Cold War was rich with exploding cigars and ricin-tipped umbrellas?  Or are we really so paralyzed with fear, so politically correct, such… pansies that we can’t have a little fun with this, and in the process, master some of our fears through humor… through poking fun at the bad guys?

Final note:  America may not be ready for “War on Terror” humor, but that hasn’t stopped Bollywood.  My cover photo today is from the 2010 comedy movie “Tere Bin Laden,” in which a broke Pakistani journalist, trying to get to America, conspires to produce and sell a fake bin Laden propaganda tape using a clueless doppelganger chicken farmer, with predictably zany results.  You can see it, with subtitles, on YouTube.  Just click the photo below.

Screen grab from the 2010 Bollywood movie, "Tere Bin Laden"

Screen grab from the 2010 Bollywood movie, “Tere Bin Laden”