About the author:
Since graduating from Columbia University’s MFA playwriting program, Jon Kern has found creative outlets on stage and on the small screen. Kern, who recently joined the writing staff of TV's The Simpsons, premiered his first off-Broadway play, We in Silence Hear a Whisper, with the Red Fern Theatre Company in 2011. This year, Kern won the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award for Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them. The play is receiving its world premiere production at off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre, starring Utkarsh Ambudkar and Nitya Vidyasagar; opening night is set for October 18. Below, Kern reveals the reason he was driven to write a humorous sendup of 21st century terrorists, even if some audience members might “struggle to laugh” at the play’s sensitive subject matter.
I grew up at 26 Beaver Street, between Broad and Broadway, two blocks south of the New York Stock Exchange at Wall Street. On the morning of September 11, 2001, my dad woke me from an up-all-night haze [I had been writing a movie review for a friend’s website] to tell me that the Stock Exchange had been attacked. That wasn’t the only thing wrong about that day.
Because of the musical The Producers, my mom and I ended up as volunteers at Ground Zero. [It’s a longer story.] She helped on a ship serving meals to volunteers. I ran around transporting supplies to wherever I was asked to take them. I remember seeing messages written in the dust caked on the Financial Center windows. Messages like “Bomb these fuckers.” Looking back, that immediate reaction seems like the set-up to the terrible joke that was the George W. Bush years.
Comedy has always felt like the strongest antidote to fear, anger and hate. When I was a lonely, scrawny kid, it was Looney Tunes that kept me company. When I went into a shell when Gong Gong [my mom’s father] died, Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, and cartoon Peter Lorre were constant friends. As the War on Terror grew to feel more and more absurd, I wanted someone smarter than me to write a comedy to help us see the ridiculousness within our nightmares. I thought it might at least calm us down. I can still recall when a friend wouldn’t ride the subway at the beginning of the Iraq war. He told me his parents were concerned they would get attacked, a hypothetical reprisal based on countless false assumptions. Such was the frenzy whipped up when the old color-coded terrorism chart went from yellow to orange.
We have The Daily Show and The Colbert Report to help us sort through our inane reality. I was fortunate enough to take writing classes from people who work on The Colbert Report. Both times I tried to talk them into writing a movie like Dr. Strangelove that focused on the existential threat we felt looming overhead. [I think they had other things to keep them busy.] If Dr. Strangelove could find humor in the terror of nuclear annihilation in the middle of the Cold War, why couldn’t we laugh in the face of our own fears?
What prompted me in 2010 to get off my butt and stop asking others to do the work I actually wanted to do myself was something very simple: I had a deadline. That deadline happened to land two weeks after the failed Times Square attack.
When the news first showed photos of the mastermind behind that plot, a 30-year-old with an MBA and two young kids, the main headshot of Faisal Shahzad showed him holding his newborn infant. As the coverage unfolded, I noticed that the infant was gone, but Faisal Shahzad was the same. His child had been cropped out. [Google his name and you get page after page of the edited image. Add “child” to his name, and the first image is the unedited photo.] The story of a Muslim, as American as the idea that American equals normal, who gives up his American life to kill people started to form. By the time Faisal Shahzad was in custody a day later [he was comically inept: a true inspiration], I had the first scene of the play already mapped.
I know there are some who will struggle to laugh with even fictional terrorists present. I wanted to make the jokes true and honest, avoiding virgins and raisins, anything that would distort the characters from the basic humanity I hope the audience will recognize and share in. At the same time, I tried not to cheapen their actions. Even poorly planned killers can be deadly. The research I did into terrorists post-9/11, after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan destabilized Al Qaeda, has shaped the motives that the four characters in my play carry.
I tend to see terrorism as not a unique form of violence, but a form of violence like we have seen from myriad ideologies. Many may disagree with my take. This is part of the excitement of the play. To put what troubles us out in the open, so that, hopefully, people walk away discussing their views, opening up to perspectives on all sides.
For myself, I can say Modern Terrorism accomplished exactly what I had been craving. I’ve laughed a lot. I feel less afraid.