We don't have to stop making jokes about him just because he's dead. It's fair to wager he'll be as big a staple in American comedy fifty years from now as Hitler jokes are today. Still, it won't be the same. The jokes comedians made about Osama bin Laden this week were jubilant, but the jokes we told each other when he was alive had edge. Back then it was laughing at the man who not only wanted to kill us, but (we thought) had the power to really do so. If it feels like we've been listening to Osama bin Laden jokes all our lives, that's because we have.
On the other hand, Osama humor hasn't been that constant a presence in our lives this whole decade. In fact, it's come in waves: after 9/11, of course, as we began to process and then laugh about what had happened; before the Iraq invasion, as the Bush administration desperately tried to establish links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein; and when Barack Obama ran for president, because their names sound alike. In between, as the man once said, we haven't been that concerned about him.
Here, in order, are some of the major moments in Osama bin Laden comedy, from our major comic voices to idiots in costumes.
Bert is Evil
Osama bin Laden, who had just orchestrated bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, is included in a gallery of notorious figures pictured with Bert from Sesame Street. According to the site, "The U.S Government believes that Bert is an informant for Bin Laden, telling Him when and Where to attack. U.S officials have not been able to talk to Bert about this possible connection cause of his Muppet Immunity."
That year Bert is Evil won the Webby for "Best Weird Website."
June 8, 1999 The Daily Show The Daily Show's first mention of Osama bin Laden: Osama makes the '90s-era Daily Show's segment "Headlines" after being named tenth on the FBI Most Wanted list. Stewart notes newcomer bin Laden's "chilling psychopathic disrespect for shaving."May 30, 2000 Family Guy: "The Road to Rhode Island"
Osama sneaks through airport security by singing show tunes to security.
September 12, 2001
Russell Brand shows up to work as a host on British MTV call-in program "Select"dressed as Osama bin Laden.
September 14, 2001
Russell Brand is fired from British MTV.
September 18, 2001
Hunter S. Thompson files his weekly ESPN column on time. It opens, "Johnny Depp called me from France on Sunday night and asked what I knew about Osama bin Laden," and is followed by Thompson fantasizing that the peacocks in his yard are bin Laden trying to steal his gasoline. Toward the end, he tosses out an off-hand prediction that's proven eerily accurate:
"Generals and military scholars will tell you that eight or 10 years is actually not such a long time in the span of human history — which is no doubt true — but history also tells us that 10 years of martial law and a war-time economy are going to feel like a Lifetime to people who are in their twenties today."
September 20, 2001 The Daily Show
First episode after 9/11.
Stewart's monologue (and the Moment of Zen puppy) are still remembered today for their poignancy, but the rest of the episode was reruns. They were back on the air but not joking just yet.
September 29, 2001 Saturday Night Live
First episode after the attacks. Lorne Michaels asks if it's okay to be funny again, and Rudy Giuliani says, "Why start now?"
Tina Fey's first joke on Weekend Update:
US officials continue the search for Osama bin Laden. Reports suggest that bin Ladin is most likely somewhere remote and barren, where he will not encounter others. The FBI has begun searching theatres showing the movie Glitter.
October 3, 2001 The Daily Show Colbert: Osama's New Look
For the first two weeks they were back on the air, the Daily Showtreaded lightly about 9/11. Direct bin Laden jokes did not appear until October. But when they came, the Osama bits were straight-up funny from the get go, a sign the writers are becoming more comfortable with 9/11 humor.October 5, 2001
Bert Is Evil appears in pro-Osama posters at rallies in Muslim countries. The Sesame Workshop was outraged, and investigated legal remedies to stop the protesters. The creator of the Bert Is Evil site released the statement in response: "Reality is imitating the Web! I am honestly freaked out!" He took down the site, which has since been made available again.
Late November 2001
Lying for a Living
British director Tony Kaye (American History X) showed up to film an acting workshop run by Marlon Brando dressed as Osama bin Ladenwith an American flag in his turban. It was an attempt to make Brando and his students, which included Leonardo DiCaprio, Sean Penn, and Jon Lovitz, uncomfortable. Many of the actors did walk out (including Lovitz), and after a falling out Brando banished "Mr. bin Laden" from the location.
December 1, 2001 Saturday Night Live
First SNL impersonation of Osama bin Laden: Pep Talk, with Will Ferrell as Osama.
February 15, 2003 Saturday Night Live
"Saddam and Osama": Osama (Jimmy Fallon) calls Saddam Hussein (Horatio Sanz) to gossip about pop culture. Thus was drawn the connection between the Al Qaeda leader and Iraq needed to justify the pretext for invasion.
May 10, 2003 Saturday Night Live
Robert Smigel's TV Funhouse: "Saddam and Osama"
This may be the pinnacle of all Osama-related humor ever.
THE QUIET YEARS
February 22, 2007 30 Rock: "Hard Ball" Jenna Moroney's epic misspeak on a Hardball appearance is possibly the first recorded comedy confusion of Osama bin Laden with Barack Obama: "If the president is so serious about the war on terror, why doesn't he hunt down and capture Barack Obama before he strikes again? It's time for a change America, that's why I'm voting for Osama in 2008. Oh, no comeback? Ya burnt!"
July 23, 2008 The Daily Show: "Osama or Obama"
The confusion between the terrorist and his future killer reaches critical mass for the first time. The Daily Showruns down the differences between the two. (Stewart: "Here's some more: Barack Obama has only one radical Muslim wife. Between Obama and Osama, the Bush administration is putting massive resources into trying to defeat one of them.")
August 25, 2010 Louie
Louis CK meets Osama at the dentist's and talks him out of being a terrorist. There is, floating somewhere in the concept behind this sketch, the feel that the energy behind this jihad just wasn't there anymore. It captured the sensation that the end was just around the corner.
May 1, 2011
As news unfolds Sunday night, Osama death jokes evolve on Twitter in real time. Twitter traffic breaks records, meaning that joke creation must also be at an all-time high. Jokes coined at 10:30 are stale before President Obama even got on TV an hour later.
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