Mentally Challenged

Seventeen years ago today, American humor lost its innocence.


I should make it clear right now: I don't remember where I was when Space Shuttle Challenger blew up. The day President Reagan was shot, the equally fruitless shooting of Pope John Paul II less than two months later, even the gruesome televised suicide of Bud Dwyer, a disgraced Pennsylvania politician—those I can remember. President Nixon's resignation stands out through the fog of early childhood memory as a day of stunned bitterness in the staunchly Republican Cavanaugh house. I remember where I was when desperate Soviet hard liners put Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest, when Baby Jessica McClure was robbed of her chance for early escape from this vale of tears, and when somebody first mentioned a new disease said to infect Haitians and homosexuals. But the Challenger? Lost in shades of distraction, indifference and skepticism.

I would like to say my fractured Challenger memories are the result of some Reagan-era bender involving heart-stopping quantities of tequila and nose candy. (If you can remember the eighties, after all, you weren't really there.) In reality, I was working two jobs to pay for a full college course load, and the Challenger disaster came as background newzak behind a busy schedule. The days of space travel as a dependable sop to the imagination were well and truly over by then, the space shuttle's prosaic missions and mass-transit product name making it seem about as sexy as a crop report. The plangent story of schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe failed to move me; my sympathy was reserved for her congenial shipmate Ronald McNair, who had visited my high school the previous year to demonstrate that we all could reach the stars if we worked hard enough (a bromide as untrue for my classmates and me as it turned out to be for McNair). The later discussion of frozen O-Rings provided a ludicrous coda to the story; who could be interested in a space agency so blind as to ignore Elton John's warning that space travel was "cold as hell"? Like a flood in China or an earthquake in India (more poignant catastrophes, in theory, since they take people in the midst of daily life rather than trained volunteers who have chosen to live dangerously), the Challenger explosion was one of those stories that, while sad, prove the Johnsonism that no man is vexed by public affairs.

This disaffection may be why I've never been able to buy the two Challenger narratives: that it was Generation X's Kennedy assassination; and that President Reagan brought the nation together in the accident's wake. The first claim is absurd on its face: If the Generation X concept meant anything, it meant never having a unifying generational moment; even if that weren't the case, I could name five or six more momentous modern news announcements before we even got to September 11. The second claim is a retroactive invention: Reagan's greatest boost to the nation's confidence was his seemingly instantaneous recovery from a gunshot wound. After that, nothing—certainly not a fatal mishap involving a federal boondoggle—could make us doubt ourselves again.

And besides, it was the jokes that really brought us together.

Recollected in tranquility, Space Shuttle Challenger jokes seem like a high water mark for catastrophe humor. Other examples of tragicomedy from that era are easily scanned for subversive attractions: Kennedy assassination jokes had the obvious virtue of desecrating a sacred memory of the Baby Boomers. (The best of these japes does not translate well into print: The teller promises to do his famous impression of John F. Kennedy, then jerks his head rapidly backward and forward while making a gunshot sound.) Jokes about Rock Hudson simultaneously worked out feelings of homophobia and medical paranoia. Teases about the dismal deaths of Natalie Wood or Philadelphia's own Princess Grace may have played on our general sense that celebrities deserve any bad thing that happens to them.

Challenger jokes may boast similar subtexts. Looking over the best of them now, we can see a variety of anti-feminism at work; many of the gags at Christa McAuliffe's expense are merely updated jokes about women drivers. Less well remembered is the outpouring of one-liners referring to "O-Rings"—an obvious sexual euphemism but also a useful catch-all for all manner of failures, technical glitches, and disappointments.

But catastrophe jokes are usually not notable for being especially funny or insightful. They are remarkable (and I would argue that here Challenger jokes are the models for the entire genre) for the speed with which they were disseminated and for being the most memorable things about the event.

The speedy dissemination cannot be credited to the technology of the times. At the time, jokes about any public tragedy were said to emanate from "Joke Central." (Believers in the legend of Reagan as a small-government conservative should be advised that at the height of his presidency such a command-economy metaphor seemed entirely plausible.) Later variations held that Joke Central was either run by or in close contact with Wall Street traders, whose then-futuristic communications networks explained the seemingly immediate appearance of the jokes throughout the Lower 48. Challenger jokes seemed to arrive while the news was still breaking.

When I say the jokes were the most memorable thing about the tragedy, I intend no disrespect to the crew of the Challenger or their survivors. But it seems so clearly true as to be unavoidable. It's a fairly good bet you could not name four, or three, or even two of the seven Challenger astronauts. But it's for damn sure you know what color Christa McAuliffe's eyes were.

Part of the point—maybe the only point—of having a generational memory is to lord it over the next generation, to bore the kids with how deeply we felt, how close to the bone we lived it, back in the day. So I'll take this opportunity to make the claim for Challenger jokes. Not only are they the purest representative of the catastrophe humor genre; they also mark the beginning of the end of the genre's relevance. In the past 17 years, history has rendered the act of telling jokes about bad news largely superfluous. Partly, it's because the jokes can't keep up. Watching the OJ Simpson saga unfold in its preposterous, slow-moving majesty, it was impossible to care about any jokes the case might inspire. On the other hand, an event's seriousness can act as a similar damper. September 11 did not, as promised, put an end to irony, but it did largely resist jokes.

More seriously, universal email has robbed Joke Central of its mystery. There's no longer any wonder about the rapid communication of post-tragedy jokes; they're right there in the inbox. They appear even more rapidly than before: I remained unaware of Marv Albert's 1997 sexual assault scandal until I got a "funny" email saying his favorite play was the come-from-behind shot. (For a while I had merely a vague notion that he may have been outed by Michelangelo Signorile; a good pastime in this brave new world is to avoid looking into a particular news item and see how long it takes to learn the entire story just through email and scuttlebutt.) I don't know whether Scott Ritter is a newly-revealed perv or the victim of a smear. In fact, I had missed the Ritter story entirely until I got another "funny" email about it the other day. This is the new function of catastrophe jokes—information, rather than entertainment.

Like everything that used to be a matter of fun, catastrophe humor has come to seem like another form of work.