Playwright Jon Kern Looks at Terrorism, and Laughs


NEW YORK - How does a young playwright from New York who volunteered at ground zero in the days after 9/11 deal with the topic of Muslim terrorism? If you're Jon Kern, you ridicule it.

In his provocative new play, "Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them," Kern gives us a look inside a fundamentalist cell preparing a suicide mission - and makes us laugh.

"If my wife were here," one character says, "we would get no killing done."

The play opens with a 20-year-old Pakistani man standing in his living room with a bomb in his underwear. His mission is to go to the Empire State Building and blow himself up, but until then, he complains, "It pinches when I sit."

These are not the monsters of our nightmares. The would-be bomber, his two handlers and a slacker from the Midwest who inadvertently joins their group are extremely normal. They use Zipcars and tend their Netflix queues. A few smoke weed. They debate the merit of Jar Jar Binks of "Star Wars." Above all, they show their less fundamental side.

"Honestly, I just want people to walk away and say, `Oh, they're human,'" the playwright says. "That's always at the beginning of an understanding."

Kern, whose mother is Chinese-American and whose father is Caucasian, is a 32-year-old graduate of Columbia University's master's program in playwriting. The new play, making its world premiere at Second Stage Theatre, is only his second full-length work to be produced, following last year's "We in Silence Hear a Whisper," which dealt with Sudan and genocide.

He began writing "Modern Terrorism" in 2010, inspired by a bungled attempt to bomb Times Square. His heart jumped a little when the first rehearsal coincided with deadly shootings outside the Empire State Building earlier this year, but they ended up not connected to terrorism.

Despite his youth, Kern has a sly, satirical voice. "If the goal were body counts, al-Qaida would just invest in KFC," one character says. At another point, the slacker tells the terrorists: "I don't know why you're so obsessed with destroying America when America is taking care of that itself."

Kern, who moved to Los Angeles in February to join the writing staff of "The Simpsons," sat down with The Associated Press to talk about Homer, horror and laughter.


AP: Isn't it very risky to make a comedy about terrorists?

Kern: If you are honest about the reality of things, no matter how painful or disturbing, people will laugh. They'll either laugh because they're uncomfortable and they need to laugh to get through it, or they'll laugh because you've hit a genuine insight or because of both. But people will laugh. I knew when I was writing the play that it was funny to me.

AP: How did the case of Faisal Shahzad, who admitted leaving an SUV rigged with a homemade bomb in Times Square, affect your play?

Kern: A lot. As the details trickled out, it was so clearly inane. He made these little, very human mistakes throughout the entire process. He left his keys in the van that was to blow up. He had a getaway car, but he couldn't drive it because his keys were in the van. Those were also his house keys, so he couldn't get home. He had to take a train back to Connecticut and call his landlord and ask, `Can you let me into my home?' Immediately when I heard that, I was like, `What is that phone conversation like?' It just felt if you dramatized just that - as truthfully as it happened - it was going to be funny.

AP: Have you considered your own safety?

Kern: No, I'm not worried about Salman Rushdie's life happening to me. I don't know if the climate is like that, I don't know if anyone knows who I am. It seems very self-important to worry about death threats.

AP: You're now a writer on "The Simpsons." What's that like?

Kern: It's probably the job I dreamed of having when I was 16. I became a playwright and didn't think this would ever happen to me. So now I'm hanging out with all these guys and a couple of ladies and we sit around and make jokes and try to write funny things for Homer. It's a little surreal.

AP: This play is about terrorists and your last one was about the genocide in Sudan. Why tackle these big, tough subjects?

Kern: I want people to pay attention to difficult things, and I think the only way to do that is to make them palatable. A joke is like a Flintstones chewable vitamin: It looks like a dinosaur and tastes good and the kid will eat it. I think that works for adults. I also think that audiences are less receptive - if they think there's a message coming at them, they're going to be prepared for a message. They're very savvy that way. You have to trick them or soften them up so that they can actually engage emotionally.

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