When Comedy Met Tragedy on 9/11

The shock and horror of the 9/11 terrorist attack twenty years ago still preys on the collective memory of those who witnessed the events of that day, either in person or watching on live TV. Countless aspects of American society were not only drastically affected then, but, to some degree, remain so to this day.

Among those was the entertainment industry (not to imply that entertainment was anywhere near as “important” as maintaining the necessary functions and safety of everyday life in the aftermath of the attack). And, within the entertainment industry itself, the smaller world of comedy was brought to the most abrupt and paralyzing standstill. How on earth could a stand-up comedian, late-night talk show host, comedy TV program or film possibly attempt to say or do anything meant to be funny, as the persistent shroud of smoke and dust created an eerie, mind-numbing haze over New York City?

The answer is — they didn’t. Not for a while, anyway. Not for weeks, or months. And, even when comedians took the first tentative steps toward resuming their lives as laugh-makers, there was no small element of trepedation and fear involved.

Aaron Brown.

As the television networks (cable news and otherwise) aired their reports of the tragedy live on a non-stop, 24-hour basis from New York, Washington, D.C. and other points across the country for at least four straight days (as was the case in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination), the late-night hosts — Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and others, as well as the weekly Saturday Night Live— were obviously not to be aired for at least a week or two, the time frame varying somewhat from one program to another. Comedy clubs across the country shut their doors tight as well.

Jon Stewart recalled a conversation shortly after the attacks, with The Daily Show writer/producers Ben Karlin and Stew Bailey. “[We’re] just trying to figure out, ‘Do we even have a show? Is there a show to do here, or do we just…do we tap dance?’ I thought it was going to go variety show.”

Marion and Jim Jordan, a.k.a. Fibber McGee and Molly.

Back in December of 1941, just two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the popular radio sitcom Fibber McGee and Molly inserted a joke about Japan into its December 9 broadcast, in which one character mentions needing to buy a new globe. “Do you want one with Japan on it?” Molly asked. “Of course,” was the reply. “Then you better get one quick.” The punchline brought gales of laughter and applause from the audience.

Twenty-two years later, upon his first return to the stage shortly after the Kennedy assassination, Lenny Bruce lamented the apparent end to Kennedy impersonator Vaughn Meader’s career. “Vaughn Meader is [screwed],” he announced, shaking his head.

Who, then, dared to try to make an audience laugh even as the grieving nation attempted to recover from — and seek revenge for — the terrorism of 9/11?

Jeffrey Ross.

On September 29, the Friar’s Club held a roast for Playboy founder Hugh Hefner at the New York Hilton, to be videotaped, edited, and broadcast on Comedy Central at a later date. The roast had been planned for some time, but after the attacks, a growing anxiety among the organizers and roasters permeated the preparations for the event. Comedian and co-producer of the show, Jeffrey Ross, said in the 2005 documentary film The Aristocrats, “There hadn’t been any comedy in New York. [The attack] was very fresh. We were faced with having to put on a show, put on tuxedos…we raised half a million dollars for 9/11-related charities. People needed a laugh, the release.” Hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, the roast began with jokes that carefully avoided the topic of the attacks, and those got a fair share of laughs, as if everyone present was cautiously testing whether or not it was okay to laugh at all. Rob Schneider took the podium early on. After a few of his own jokes didn’t go over as well as expected, Ross went up to the mic and said, “Rob, hasn’t there been enough bombing in this city?”

Gilbert Gottfried, never one to shy away from delving into taboo topics in his act, admitted that he had wanted to be the first comedian to make a joke related to 9/11.

Gilbert Gottfried lets loose at the Hefner roast.

During his turn at the dais podium, Gottfried included the line, “I have to leave early tonight, I have to fly out to L.A. I couldn’t get a direct flight — we have to make a stop at the Empire State Building.” The joke was immediately met with a round of boos, with one audience member shouting, “Too soon!” Gottfried had touched a still-raw nerve. “I certainly had that feeling [of panic]. I lost the audience as much as anyone has ever lost an audience.” Seeing that he was losing the crowd, he decided to try an old and notorious joke known as “The Aristocrats,” acknowledged to be among the dirtiest, raunchiest jokes ever created.

Even Hefner would have been stunned by Gilbert’s recitation.

His fellow comedians on the dais were familiar with it, but a good deal of the audience probably wasn’t. Yet, they not only welcomed the unabashed ferocity and over-the-top delivery that Gottfried has always been known for, as he delivered the unspeakable details of the story in his usual shouting rant. The audience loved it. Ross recalled seeing Kimmel virtually crying with laughter. Schneider actually collapsed to the floor in hysterics. “That was the greatest moment for me,” Gottfried has said, “aside from the audience cheering and laughing, was getting to look at the other comics on the dais laughing.” A pressure valve had been released.

Jon Stewart as he spoke of the tragedy on “The Daily Show.”

The late-night programs eventually returned to the air one by one, with their respective hosts each having their say in their somber opening monologues about how the events of 9/11 had affected not only their programs, but their lives, and the lives of everyone else. Letterman and Stewart became especially emotional as they expressed their emotions over the events.

The Daily Show’s first night back on the air was September 20. Staff writer Chris Regan said of that time, “We just weren’t talking about the big smoking elephant in the room. It was just a terrifying time to write comedy. Not the worst problem to have in New York, but still, it was a very strange time to try to be funny” (Stewart went on to spend a good part of the next two decades as an advocate for federal medical benefits for first responders and emergency workers at the Twin Towers site, who had become ill from lung diseases caused by the ever-present dust and airborne debris they inhaled as they worked).

Rudolph Guiliani and New York firefighters and police appear on the return of SNL.

Saturday Night Live scheduled its return broadcast for September 29th. Producer Marci Klein, in the first days after 9/11, didn’t feel it was right, telling Lorne Michaels, “The first show cannot happen. This is not a time to be funny. There is no way we can do a show in two weeks.” Michaels was hesitant to cancel, but then-Mayor Rudolph Guiliani convinced him to proceed. The first episode’s material was deliberately on the mild side, and cast member Will Farrell had mixed feelings about the results. “I have a hard time figuring out what the viewpoint of the 9/11 show was…It was a benign show, and maybe that was the best thing to do under the circumstances.” He reported that while talking to New York police and firemen assembled and honored on the show, “They just kept thanking us and saying, ‘Thanks for the break, we really needed it,’ and we were going, ‘What?! We should be thanking you’.” I did get a little bit emotional toward the end…”

Ellen DeGeneres hosting the Emmys.

The Primetime Emmy Awards had been originally scheduled to take place on September 16, but were delayed and given a new date, October 7. The bombing of Afghanistan earlier on the 7th prompted the delay of the program yet again, and it was given another new date, November 4. It was broadcast live, as always, with host Ellen DeGeneres asking rhetorically in her opening monologue, “What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman, in a suit, surrounded by Jews?” It became the most memorable line of the evening.

Comedy, slowly and carefully, had begun finding its way back into our lives once again.

There is more to this story, and more to the stories of how the comedy world reacted to the other historic events mentioned above. I am currently writing a book tentatively titled When Comedy Meets Tragedy, which will examine these events, as well as the current pandemic, and how they affected the comedy of their day. Stay tuned.

Until next time…

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.