So maybe we have it all wrong when we ask whether a joke is “too soon.” Perhaps a better question to ask is, “When is the punch line too close for comfort, and when is it too distant to matter?”

Hanson and his Onion colleagues looked at 9/11 this way—and less than two weeks after the towers came down, they tackled the tragedy head on, creating a whole issue devoted to the terrorist attacks. But they were exceedingly careful about their punch lines, keeping a safe comedic distance from the horrors that had transpired. They didn’t joke about the civilians who died that day or the new terror of flying in an airplane. Those subjects were too raw. Instead, they turned the terrorists into fools (“Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell,” read one article’s headline) and cracked wise about the strange aura of confusion and despair that had settled over the country (“Not Knowing What Else to Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake,” read another.)

The day after the issue came out, people all over the country began faxing The Onion grateful comments, and fan mail flowed in by the thousands. “To me, it’s not about timing. It’s about legitimate versus illegitimate targets,” says Hanson. “If what you are saying is honest and legitimate and has a valid point, it’s going to be valid the day after, and it’s going to be valid 500 years later.”