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We turned on the tube here at SHECKYmagazine.com HQ just in time to witness the collapse of the first tower. Within an hour, we mobilized and occupied my mother's house a few towns over for the purpose of looking after her house and dog. (She was stranded in Northern Virginia, with no hope of getting back home by conventional means... besides she's got killer cable and we ditched ours a long time ago-- there's nothing more frustrating than watching the end of the world via lousy reception.)
As the details of the attacks were revealed through skillful and often frantic channel surfing, I went through what was probably a typical hierarchy of considerations: What does this mean for the world? What's this mean for the USA? What's this mean for the immediate vicinity? What does this mean for me? I went, in that order, from the general to the specific.
Then I went "back out," from the my world out to everyone else's world: What's this mean for my life? What's this mean for our lives? What's this mean for our families? Our friends? What's this mean for the culture? Then: What's this gonna do to comedy?
I briefly panicked. I thought it was over. I thought that standup comedy (and more than a few other things) were "over." In the first 24 hours after "the world changed," I thought that the new, changed world would have no use for a bunch of comics telling jokes in a smoky nightclub or anywhere else, for that matter. Then I got a hold of myself.
By 1 pm Wednesday, we had composed and mailed out an email
to our subscribers (many of whom are standup comics, naturally)
that suggested how they might approach the task of amusing
people in the wake of such a horrific and public spectacle. (To
read that email, click the button below.)
It turns out we were right when we surmised that a bunch of other comics were in the same boat as us. How in the world would we be able to do comedy after this? We determined that Americans would need comedy more than ever. Maybe not right away, but eventually. We initially felt guilty for even considering it along with all the other heavy questions of the hour. But, since it was our livelihood we were talking about, and since we were also the publishers of a monthly online magazine about standup comedy, we felt bound to give it some thought.
We were in no way prepared for the reaction of the press, however. Within days, when media types were given the all-clear to speculate on the cultural implications of the attacks and their aftermath, a surprising number of people speculated on humor and its place in America, post-9/11.
A local radio talk show host told of a visit to the video store on the Thursday after the attacks. He was aggressively looking to laugh and he wanted to rent a comedy. The comedies were gone; cleaned out. That was significant.
Upon their return to the air, the girls of The View wasted little time in figuring out how humor would fit into the picture. They deferred to the comic among them, Joy Behar, who said, "This is not a time for humor and I think that any substantial person knows that." Interesting, not just for the sentiment expressed, but because they cared about humor in the first place. Behar allowed that humor would eventually return but that it was laying low for now.
A lot of folks replied to our email thanking us for helping out. Some of them weren't even comics. (For a compendium of those replies, hop onto this month's Like We Care.) One of them, a comedy booking agent in the midwest, forwarded the email to the Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal. It seems they'd contacted her to find out how comics would be dealing with the national tragedy. The subsequent article made reference to our email. It was then that we knew that the media was working this angle like nobody's business.
By the following Monday, I learned from a friend at the Washington Post that the WP's Style section columnist Gene Weingarten was working on an article on the same subject. That article, "No, We Donít Need Sick Humor," surveyed the depression throughout the mirth industry, noting the effects on the Onion, the New Yorker and others. The article, which appeared on the 18th, was quoted briefly by Kilborn when he returned to his show. Our email was quoted midway through the piece. The following Tuesday, I chatted with yet another WashPoster who was working on an article that would speculate on "the death of irony."
Exactly one week after the attacks, a local comic who is also a features reporter for the local Fox affiliate, solicited our opinion, on camera. The tape aired the following day on their morning show.
Tom Shales, the TV critic for the Washington Post, wrote about the return of the late night giants to their joking ways after 9/11. He thought Dave did a good job, but "Leno...is only a comedian, a joke-teller, and when he tries to hunker down and level with the audience, he's only showbizzy and fake." I saw clips of both (I wasn't up to staying up late enough to see them live). I gotta say that it was probably the first time since Leno took over Tonight that I actually found him to be genuine. I can't believe that Shales could have watched Leno that night and thought Leno was anything other than real. (Obviously, Shales has never seen "Collision Course," the 1987 movie that Leno starred in with Pat Morita.)
USA Today was packed with speculation on the return of laughter to our lives and the Sept. 26 edition included an interview with Ben Stiller, who was concerned specifically because he was releasing his comedy dealing with terrorism. There was also an item on the WTC benefit that Seinfeld announced for Oct. 8. Seinfeld, America's de facto Hilariator General, held a press conference and led the nation's charge back into comedy. "We think it's important for people to do the normal things...telling jokes and being Americans," he said.
On the front page of that day's Life section, a headline read, "TV Poll: Viewers Seeking News, Comedy." The article, by Gary Levin, echoed many others when it reported that Americans immediately lost their appetite for reality programming and they are going to seek out situation comedies in large numbers. It has long been a crusade of mine to point out the boneheadedness of TV execs who have been disrespecting the sitcom. I have long predicted that they would see the error of their ways. I never expected this.
The New York Times wondered how comics would get back on the horse. The President himself mentioned the importance of laughing again. The Onion initially ran old articles, then came roaring back, putting up record numbers for traffic when their perfectly Onionesque take on the country's trauma proved to be on the money.
Hardly a day went by without someone wondering (at times, it seemed as though they were worrying) what would become of comedy. Would we ever be able to laugh again? Was irony dead? Their concern was...touching. Amid all of this carnage, all of this fear and uncertainty, people wanted to know if they'd ever laugh again, if they'd ever have permission to make jokes. As someone who spends his life and makes his living in the depths of the humor mine, I wondered and worried, too. But I concluded that it would return. And I was touched.
When we started this magazine 31 months ago, we were a little sore at America and at the press for what we perceived as shoddy treatment of standup comics. An overriding mission of the magazine was to shore up that reputation, show comics as positive, creative and industrious people. It was necessary because we saw standup comics as underappreciated and misunderstood.
We still feel misunderstood. After what we've witnessed
over the last two weeks however, it seems as though America appreciates
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