Comedy and Tragedy

By Robin Rosenfeld

Kenneth Burke has been referred to as a philosopher of language whose criticism and theories have had a major impact on many American writers and thinkers in the mid-20th century.  Burke was a poet, reviewer, novelist, translator, social commentator and writer of short stories. His works were collected in more than 15 books.  Burke was widely known for concentrating on the deeper uses to which language may be expressed, as well as its true meaning and significance.  Two of Kenneth Burke’s theories that can be applied in today’s society are the comic and tragic frames. The comic and tragic frames are symbolic structures that allow people to impose order on personal and social experiences. They provide perspective for interpretation of events and a way of deciding what types of social action should be taken in a given situation.  These two frames have been especially helpful for people who have had to speak publicly since the wake of the terrorist attacks that the United States has encountered. 

The goal of the comic frame is to achieve change by pointing to and poking fun at the faults and flaws in a given circumstance.  The comic frame takes nothing at face value because it’s not a literal view of things.  Instead, it assumes that there is always some hidden motive that could be lurking in even the most obvious and explicit of statements and actions. Therefore the aim of the comic frame is not to sacrifice or kill the scapegoat, but to chastise the clown.

            The tragic frame, on the other hand, approaches experiences that create guilt.  Burke believes that there are two distinct ways to tragically alleviate guilt from a situation: victimage and purification.  Within the tragic frame, victimage and purification transpire through the identification of a scapegoat.  The scapegoat is usually blamed in order to purify a situation until the guilt arises again.  At times the scapegoat may even be the situation that is causing all the guilt, in which case the predicament is overcome and hopefully a new, pure situation is implemented to replace the old and corrupted one.  Burke had a wide following among many people because his theories helped shaped ways to produce exceptional rhetoric.  With the recent tragedies that have affected the freedom of the United States, many entertainers have had to change the way they approach public discourse.  Due to the fact that this tragedy just occurred only three months ago, no one else has done a comprehensive analysis of how the comic and tragic frames have been used to conduct discourse in the entertainment industry. 

On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four commercial planes and utterly disrupted the way in which Americans lived their lives. Three of the commercial planes slammed into buildings and a fourth plane crashed near a small town in Pennsylvania.  The events of that horrible day are said to be the worst terrorist attacks in the history of the United States. The first plane that caused the beginning of this tragic day was hijacked out of Boston, Massachusetts, and crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York at 8:45 a.m. This first crash tore a gaping hole into the building and set the tower as well as the plane in fire.  About 18 minutes later, a second hijacked airliner, United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston, crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center and exploded.  At about 9:40, a third hijacked airliner crashed into the Pentagon, sending up a huge plume of smoke and causing extensive damage to the Army corridor of the building.  After the first two attacks on the World Trade Center, thousands of people were feared hurt or killed and more than 10,000 rescue personnel rushed to the scene to try to provide aid and support to the victims who were still in the World Trade Center. Unfortunately, the heroic efforts that many rescue workers and employees that worked in the tower exhibited were lost when both towers collapsed (United States Under Attack).

Normally, more than 150,000 people go through the World Trade Center on an average day.  Many different corporations and business occupied several floors of the towers.  After the devastation, the area was described as a war zone.  The reason for this is many bodies, rubble, and tons of debris from the planes and the building filled the area that used to be known as America’s symbol of prosperity.  The devastation that New York has faced has been unimaginable because 3,682 people are confirmed dead, missing or presumed dead.  The Pentagon death toll, including the plane passengers, stands at around 200 missing and presumed dead.  As a result of the plane crash into the Pentagon, many government buildings, including the White House, were evacuated for fear that they could be targets for terrorist attacks as well.  After the horrific attacks on September 11th, all the evidence that was gathered to try to figure out who committed such a heinous act pointed to a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations known as the al Qaeda.  The mastermind of al Qaeda is Osama bin Laden, an exiled Saudi millionaire.  After the tragedy it, seemed as if the whole country stood at a stand still, absorbed in watching the news to find out any new information about this horrible attack.  Many schools, organizations, professional sports and most of the entertainment industry shut down for a few days after the tragedy to try to make sense of what had happened and cope with all the losses our country was facing. 

            According to an article in the Los Angeles Times by Anthony Breznican, the entertainment industry was damaged by the terrorist attacks of September 11th.  The 53rd annual Primetime Emmys, which had been scheduled for that following Sunday night in Los Angeles, were postponed.  Jim Cabin, president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, indicated right after the attacks that he didn’t want to set a new date for the Emmys until he found out the extent of this tragedy and the national mourning that was going to take place in our country.  Organizers of the Emmy awards eventually rescheduled the show to a date in early November.  Meanwhile, the second annual Latin Grammy’s, scheduled to be broadcast on September 11th in Los Angeles, were canceled because of the attack.  Workers outside the arena where the Latin Grammy’s were to be held hurried to dismantle the elaborate stages shortly after the attacks, and Recording Academy officials said the show would not be rescheduled.  Also, after the attack, all Broadway shows were canceled in New York and box offices at the theaters were closed for a week.  Amusement parks closed around the country and locked their gates as the terrorist attacks darkened a stunned entertainment industry.

Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland and Universal Studios in Southern California were shut down.  All major sporting events such as major league baseball and football were cancelled for fear that another terrorist attack would be aimed at a huge arena where a sporting event would be held.  In Southern California, major movie studios such as Paramount, Sony Pictures and Warner Bros. were shut down.  This meant that all studio tours and production of movies and television shows were cancelled.  Barbara Brogliatti, a spokeswoman for Warner Bros., explained that the reason studios were closed was out of respect for the victims of the tragedy, not out of fear.  Other cancellations included tapings for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno at the NBC studios in Burbank.  Also, the Late Show with David Letterman as well as Late Night starring Conan O’Brien did not tape all week, because both shows are taped in New York City.  Most television shows remained dark all week after the September 11th attack because many television networks canceled regular programs in favor of round-the-clock news.

After the horrible tragedy, it was extremely difficult for people who are entertainers to perform.  With the country in a state of mourning because of disbelief that a horrible terrorist attack happened on American soil, many performers felt uncomfortable trying to entertain.  Performers were not the only people faced with the dilemma of how to approach comedy.  Newspapers that use satire to make fun of current events and popular culture were faced with a problem as well.  The online publication the Onion is widely known around the world for often writing humorous stories that are not afraid to offend or poke fun at world leaders and current issues.  With the horrible events on September 11th, the Onion decided to use Kenneth Burke’s theory of the comic frame to try to approach humor again. 

Public humorists such as Bill Maher and David Letterman who make a their living by entertaining people, had to determine how they would address the tragic events that the United States was facing. Bill Maher, who hosts the show Politically Incorrect, tries to use his show to inform the American public of current world issues in a fun and sometimes argumentative manner.  He does this by inviting different guests on his show to share their opinions about current events going on around the world.  Bill Maher tried to use the comic frame on his show to explain the emotions he was feeling about the terrorist attacks.  He tried dealing with this tragic situation by using the comic frame.  This approach of comedy he used ended up backfiring on his show.  David Letterman, who has been entertaining people for more that 20 years with his smart wit and sarcastic tone, decided not to use humor to address the tragedy on his late night show.  Instead, Letterman used Burke’s other theory, the tragic frame, to illustrate how he was coping with the September 11th terrorist attack.

According to Adrienne E. Christiansen and Jeremy J. Hanson, authors of Comedy as Cure for Tragedy: Act up and the Rhetoric of Aids,

rather than reducing social tensions through mystification, scapegoating, or banishment, rhetoric in the comic frame humorously points out failings in the status quo and urges society to correct them through thoughtful action rather than tragic victamage”(161).

The Onion tried to follow Burke’s theory of the comic frame after the terrorist attacks.  The Onion, whose main purpose is to make people laugh, was caught in a dilemma.  They were faced with the question of the appropriateness of satire in such a dire time.  The Onion decided to take President Bush’s words to heart and go on with business as usual.  This meant that this Internet paper was going to use humor to reflect on the horrible tragedy.    

            On September 26, 2001, the Onion wrote a story which was called, Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell.  This humorous story is supposedly about the hijackers, Mohammed Atta, Ahmed al-Haznawl, and Abdul Aziz Alomari, that carried out the attack on September 11th on the World Trade Center and The Pentagon. The Onion writes, “the 19 eternally damned terrorists have struggled to understand why they have been subjected to soul withering, infernal torture ever since their September 11th arrival” (Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell). These individuals in the article express how they were confused to find themselves in the lowest plane of Na’ar, Islam Hell.  They thought that since they carried out the attack and gave up their lives all in the name of jihad they would spend eternity in paradise, not Hell.   The reason that the Onion could post this story on their website is because the story was written more than two weeks after the attack and the country had, had some time to heal.  The other reason is because this article used Burke’s theory of the comic frame to poke fun at the suicide bombers’ idea that they would go to heaven after they sacrificed their own lives as well as innocent people’s lives to carry out this horrible attack.

According to Christiansen and Hanson, “when individuals or groups act in the comic frame, they commit themselves to an approach that runs counter to the prevailing tragic impulse in Western society”(161).   For example, the Onion took a horrible tragedy but found humor in it by poking fun at the terrorists who had control of their fate or destiny.  This article would not have been funny at all if the Onion wrote a story about someone who was one of the passengers on one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center or The Pentagon.  The reason for this is because the passengers on the plane were victims who had no control of their fate.       

As Kenneth Burke points out, in the comic frame we can see humor by juxtaposing the supposed heroes and the victims.  The Onion takes the hijackers and makes them victims to Satan and all his devilish friends.  We laugh not only about how the story is written, but also how the hijackers are receiving what they deserve.  The Onion goes on to quote one of the hijackers, Abdul Aziz Alomari before, his jaw was sheared away, “I was told that these Americans were enemies of the one true religion, and the Heaven would be my reward for my noble sacrifice” (Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell).  The irony in this story runs deep because the suicide bombers who did these dreadful things and killed so many innocent people, have no idea that what they did was wrong.    

This article explains all the torture and anguish that these hijackers are receiving in Hell.  The last line of the article explains that Satan gets these hijackers all day on Sunday and that it’s hard to imagine what Satan has planned for them.  The Onion was able to employ Burke’s theory of the comic frame because this Internet paper poked fun at the suicide bombers who were not tragic victims because they chose their own destiny. The Onion also decided to chastise the clown.  They did this by using descriptive language to explain the punishments these suicide bombers’ would receive in hell.

Burke explains the comic frame of motives in the book On Symbols and Society.  Burke believes that,

the comic frame of motives would not only avoid the sentimental denial of materialistic factors in human acts.  It would also avoid the cynical brutality that comes when such sensitivity is outraged, it must be outraged by the acts of others or by the needs that practical exigencies place upon us (264).

Bill Maher’s goal on the show Politically Incorrect, is to discuss political issues that are going on around the world with a panel of different guests and provide humorous as well as insightful information for the audience.   Politically Incorrect appeared on the air on September 17th, only six days after the devastating tragedy.  Bill Maher tried to conduct his show as normally as possible that day, but the panel who appeared on the show could not help expressing their opinions about what had happened in New York and Washington.   Maher tried to use the comic frame in his show; but when he did, it ended up backfiring for him, because our country was still in mourning and not ready to laugh.

The horror of the September 11th attack struck very close to Maher, the reason for this is political commentator and frequent guest Barbara Olsen died on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon building.  Olsen was on her way to appear on Maher's show.  In his opening remarks, Maher said something that would sadly be forgotten: "I do not relinquish, nor should any of you, the right to criticize, even as we support, our government. This is still a democracy, and they're still politicians" (Politically Incorrect transcript). When guest Dinesh D'Souza said the terrorists were not cowards, as they've often been characterized, on the show that night, according to ABC program transcripts, Maher replied: "We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly" (Politically Incorrect transcript). 

Somehow, Maher's comments were translated as saying he believed those who served in the U.S. military were cowards. Show sponsors Fed Ex and Sears Roebuck promptly withdrew their ads, reportedly in response to customer complaints. The next day, Maher was attacked from all sides, including network colleagues on The View. The morning following Maher's comments, the women of The View discussed his lack of judgment and timing. Mahr’s statement about the military being cowardly was said in an ironic and sarcastic tone, which he uses a lot in his show to find humor in given situations.  Maher tried to make the military the object of humor and thought he would get even more laughs if he called the terrorists brave.  Maher’s use of the comic frame was not appropriate or humorous it ended up offending many people.  Maher used incongruity and irony in his statement to try to be comical.  He tried to juxtapose the characteristics of the military and the terrorists.  Maher referred to the U.S. military as cowardly to be sarcastic. This statement made people very upset, because people usually want to think of our military as being brave and strong especially after a horrific and tragic event happens in our country.  By calling the terrorists brave, Bill Maher thought that people would pick up on his irony, but instead it just made people even more outraged. The country was not ready for this type of sarcastic humor only days after the attacks.

Maher experienced a lot of backlash because of the statements he made.  Mahr spent the following week retracting his comments on the ABC website and on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.  Mahr told Leno,

In no way was I intending to say, nor have I ever thought, that the men and women who defend our nation in uniform are anything but courageous and valiant, and I offer my apologies to anyone who took it wrong. My criticism was meant for politicians who ... have not allowed our military to do the job they are obviously ready, willing and able to do

(Tonight show transcript).

Bill Maher’s apology helped him win some sponsorship back for his show, but some stations around the country thought Maher’s remarks were too insulting and decided to not pick up the show in their market.  Maher used the comic frame poorly, and because of that, his show has been faced with hard times.  To appropriately use the comic frame, a person must make sure the audience is ready to laugh.  Bill Maher completely misjudged the emotions the audience was feeling.    

             Six days after the terrorist attacks, The Late Show with David Letterman also returned to the air.  Letterman became the first humorist and the first major entertainment figure to reclaim the national television stage following the terrorist attacks on America.  Viewers who were expecting a dose of his sarcastic wit and wise-guy attitude got something very different. The Late Show displayed an hour-long show that will probably go down in television history for the raw power of its emotions.  Letterman said that the reason he returned to the airwaves on September 17th after a week-long hiatus was to answer New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's call to return to work.  Letterman refrained from the usual wisecracks and daily Top 10 List in favor of a more moving and somber show, which reflected the melancholy mood of the nation. The gap-toothed comic opened CBS’ Late Show seated behind his desk with a somber unscripted nine-minute monologue expressing his feelings about the tragedies.  Letterman said in the beginning of his opening monologue, "It's terribly sad here in New York can feel it, you can see it.”  During his monologue Letterman’s voice at times seemed shaky and subdued.  Letterman also said, “Mayor Guliani encouraged us—and here lately implored us to go back to our lives, go on living, continue trying to make New York City the place that it should be.  And because of him, I'm here tonight" (Late show transcript). This Indianapolis native who has worked in New York for 20 years paid tribute to the city’s police and firefighters, but it was also moving that Letterman, a man in the public spotlight, struggled with the attacks and the emotions they provoked on national television.

Letterman realized the emotional state the country was in, as well as his own and decided that he could not do a comedy show his first week back. Instead, Letterman chose to use the tragic frame to conduct his show because he saw himself as a victim.  Letterman’s show takes place right in the heart of New York City, where so many people either knew or were related to someone who died. These people who live in New York City must come to grips with the effects of this horrendous tragedy.   Letterman as well as many citizens of New York, are victims because they can no longer look at the skyline of their city and see two prominent landmarks.  Their subway routes have changed, and their sense of security has been taken away.  This all happened to them without any warning, without any explanation or any ability for them to change their fate.  According to Christiansen and Hanson,

Burke refers to the main character in the tragic discourse as a victim because the person cannot avoid suffering his or her fate. The tragic victim’s discourse is fruitless because he or she appeals to a supernatural force such as God, fate, or destiny, a force that is, in essence beyond persuasion.  The tragic frame requires a sacrificial scapegoat who suffers, dies, or is banished by society in a symbolic attempt to rid itself of chaos, disease, and impurity (159).

Letterman used the tragic frame in his monologue to address why he believes the terrorists attacked the United States.  He explains that these terrorists claim they did this because of religious passion, but Letterman does not think that he will ever understand how a religion can fuel people to commit such horrendous acts.  This is explained when he said in his monologue on September 17th,

The reason we were attacked, the reason these people are dead, these people are missing and dead, and they weren’t doing anything wrong, they were living their lives, they were going to work, they were traveling, they were doing what they normally do.  As I understand it another smaller group of people stole some airplanes and crashed them into buildings.  And were told that they were zealots, fueled by religious fervor…religious fervor.  And if you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you?  Will that make any Goddamned sense?  

(Late show transcript)

Letterman commented on all this because he felt tormented.  In his monologue, he is trying to explain that he will never comprehend why these terrorists would hurt so many innocent people just because they were influenced by their religious faith. 

Letterman got extremely choked up at one part of his monologue, when he talked about how he has been working in New York City for almost twenty years and that during those years he has worked very closely with police officers and firefighters.  He then expressed how everyone around our country has taken these men and women who risk their lives everyday for granted.  Letterman made sure that he paid tribute to the police officers and firefighters by commenting,

the phrase New York’s finest and New York’s bravest, you know, did it mean anything to us personally, firsthand?  Well, maybe, hopefully, but probably not. But boy, it means something now doesn’t it?  They put themselves in harm’s way to protect people like us, and the men and women, the fire fighters and the police department who are lost are going to be missed by this city for a very, very long time (Late show transcript).

Letterman makes a good point that these brave men and women were

tragic victims as well because they were just doing their job by coming to the aid of people who worked at the disaster sites.  With no thought for their own safety, these policemen and firefighters rushed to the scenes to try to provide aid and help to as many people as possible.  It is unimaginable that the generous acts of these tragic victims would be ignored when the World Trade Towers came crashing down.                                                                                                                                  

During his monologue, Letterman spoke emotionally about how the tragic events have affected him personally as well as the country. These desperate feelings that Letterman provoked helped capture what million of viewers were feeling.  Letterman made sure that he spoke from his heart and let the country know that it was not alone in how they were dealing with the tragic events.  A successful speaker, whether using the tragic frame or comic frame, is able to make their audience identify with them.  Letterman did not hold any emotions back during his first show after the horrific attacks; instead he spoke about how he was coping with the events.  Even though Letterman did not provide his usual brand of humor during his show, the format that he chose by using the tragic frame helped him deal with the events of the prior week and gained him respect from his audience.

The Onion and David Letterman used the correct format to identify with their audience’s values and needs.  Bill Maher did not use the correct format of speaking when he offended so many people by insulting the courage of the U.S. military.  Maher also, ignored the needs of his audience when he decided to bring back his show, only six days after the attacks.  After the events of September 11th the American public needed to believe in the courage and strength of the American armed forces.  Maher’s comments that he made seemed to detract from the patriotism the country was feeling at the time. 

It is evident that there is a fine line between tragedy and comedy and sometimes it is extremely hard to find humor in tragic situations.  According to Christiansen and Hanson,

In contrast to the tragic frame, the comic frame never requires death or banishment of a scapegoat.  It attempts to shame or humiliate the target in to changing his or her actions.  The comic frame offers hope to society because the efficacy of human agency, reason, and community are affirmed (160). 

After the events of September 11th, it was hard for many people to start the healing process of getting back to normalcy and laughing again.  Entertainers had to approach the way they performed differently to a soothing nation that was mourning over the tragedy.  Kenneth Burke’s theories of the comic and tragic frames helped most performers and entertainers successfully communicate with a battered and shocked nation.

Works Cited

Breznican, Anthony.  (2001).  Entertainment industry rocked by national disaster. The Los Angeles Times, pg.A12

Burke, Kenneth.  (1989).  On Symbols and Society (pg. 261-267). 

Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press.

Christiansen, Adrienne E. & Hanson, Jeremy J.  (1996).  Comedy as Cure for

Tragedy: Act up and the Rhetoric of AidsThe Quarterly Journal of

Speech, v82 n2 (pg 157-169).

LeBaron Jr.,Garn. (1998) Environmental Movement.

Lyons, Richard (1993) Kenneth Burke, Philosopher, 96, And New Criticism

Founder, Dies. The New York Times  pg.48


Moraes, Lisa de.  (2001) WJLA Pulls 'PI' a Second Time.

 Washington Post, pg. C07.

Late Show With David Letterman transcript. (2001).

Politically Incorrect Transcript. (2001).

Tonight Show with Jay Leno transcript. (2001).

The Onion. (2001). Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell

United States Under Attack.  (2001).

607 256-0587