9.11.01–a comedian’s take
It was a couple of weeks after my friend Kevin had called me and said “Turn on the TV—we’re under attack.” Now, I’m not a morning person, so my first instinct was to hang up. But then I started to assemble the words into some sort of sense—we’re…under…attack.
I then spent the better part of the day staring at my laptop. I was so overwhelmed, I’m not even sure I felt sad for the first hour or so. There wasn’t any room in my skull for sad. My head was too busy saying “what the fuck” on some sort of endless tape loop for it to admit any other feelings. I watched footage of the second plane (and that was really the one that scared us, because the first one, we all prayed, was just a freak accident)…
I watched that footage hundreds of times on September 11th. I realize now that I kept watching it to numb myself to it. Maybe if I watched it enough, I would be able to process it –react to it—and then put it in a box and on a shelf with other things I just watched on TV. (By the way, at this point, I’m sure you’re wondering, “When does the comedy start? I mean, the guy calls himself ‘Mister Comedy,’ fer chrissake.” )
Listen, I was three when JFK was shot. I was eight when we lost Dr. King. I only vaguely remember shots of balconies and hooded gunmen in Munich in 1972. But this. I knew when the second plane hit that this would be the defining moment of my generation. I think if your country is attacked when you’re twenty…well, you’re invincible when your twenty. But I think when your country’s attacked and you’re forty-one, you have more of a feeling of…ownership of the place.
I realized that from March 30, 1960 through September 10th, 2001, I had not felt patriotism. I had, to be sure, recited the Pledge of Allegiance, sung the National Anthem, and even, in fourth grade, constructed a map of the United States out of salt dough. But until about 9:15 on that morning, I didn’t really feel like I was a part of an ‘us.’
That’s also when I truly fell in love with New York. When I saw news reports of New Yorkers lining up for miles to donate blood, I wanted to move there. I’m from earthquake country, and went through the Northridge quake in ’92, and I don’t remember anything like the sense of community I witnessed from three thousand miles away. (I’m not saying that all Angelenos are selfish, craven, career-driven barnacles on an apocalyptic ship…I’m just sayin’…)
So…I wrote this piece about two weeks after the towers fell, and I think it’s a fair representation of what comedians dealt with in the aftermath of 9/11.
Everyone who works as a comedian (admittedly an oxymoron to begin with) had the same thought on September 11th–“I’m gonna have to get a real job–nothing’s ever going to be funny again!!!”
So here’s the deal. Humor is healing. It is what we do when we can’t wrap our brains around really bad things. It’s a wonderful form of collective denial that’s been around since the first really bad thing happened. Though there are no records of this, I’m pretty sure that there were people doing Pompeii jokes after the volcano hit (“Hey gang–real estate tip–next time you buy property, remember these four words–IS THE VOLCANO ACTIVE?”
It’s like that Star Trek episode where the scary alien energy presence thingie was eventually defeated because the crew of the Enterprise laughed at it. OK, it’s not a lot like that, but you get my point. Or maybe you don’t.
Anyway, the bottom line is, I don’t know any comic who thinks three thousand dead people is funny. But for those of us still here, we have to joke–because if we tried to understand the level of evil we’re talking about here, our heads would explode.
As much of a lefty as I am, I actually feel sorry for George W. (In my defense, at the time I didn’t realize he would lead us into a misguided war as the puppet of some truly evil motherfuckers–I just thought he was stupid.) I mean, he just got the job–hell, he’s probably still figuring out where all the bathrooms are. “Hey–I wonder where this leads…” “Uh, Mr. President, you have a briefing in an hour…Mr. President? Oh shit–would somebody please find W. and point him toward the press room?”
The most telling video clip is the one where Bush was in a classroom being told about the attack. Rule of thumb: any time a guy in a dark suit whispers to the President of the United States, something bad has happened. And thank God the smirk is gone. W. hasn’t smirked since September 11th. Smirking is, I think, a bad thing for a president to do. Credibility-wise.
Saddam Hussein offered to help the United States–if we asked. OK, guy–let’s assume we, as a nation, forgot about the whole accessory-to-terrorism, biological-warfare-capable, burning-our-presidents-in-effigy-because-we’re–the-Great-Satan thing. How exactly, could you help us? “Mr. President, Hussein sent that shipment of rocks and sand we need…”(Again–my bad. I was naive and bought into the whole ‘biological-weapons-capable’ deal.)
I’m uncomfortable with the fact that, judging by who I saw on the street that night, the largest number of American flags seem to have been purchased by a group I call ‘tattoo patriots’–and I’m not sure I feel safe with a front line of rednecks and trailer trash defending me. I mean, I just don’t like it that the most vocal people seem to be the type of guys that think “Hell, me and a couple of buddies ought to just go over there and kick some ass.” It just doesn’t seem the time for rational dialogue right now…
But once again, the true heroes in this national crisis have been the rock stars who, instead of giving some of their gazillions of dollars to the victims of the attack, chose to–sing. But the thing about September 11th that made it unique amongst the challenges we’ve faced, it that nobody knew how they were supposed to react.
The most unfortunate choice of words in the first two weeks–the announcer for a New York Mets I watched who, after a game-winning home run, said “Shea Stadium has just exploded!”. Imagine some poor working-stiff bastard, just wants to hear a little of the ball game, take his mind off the tragedy, and right when he turns on the radio he hears that.
Actually, think we should all cut Bush a little slack (in retrospect, I take that line back). I’m serious–we’ve all gotten a new job and then a couple months in realized we’re not quite sure we can handle it–you know, they train you at Starbucks and then all of a sudden they start selling some new kind of coffee, and there’s a huge line, and you’re not sure what button to push on the register, and you panic, and the assistant manager tells you don’t worry, just go clean the tables.
Which is sort of what W. probably went through— “Um…guys…nobody told me what to do if the bad guys CRASH OUR PLANES INTO OUR BUILDINGS!!!” He’s frantically flipping through The Presidency for Dummies–meanwhile I imagine Cheney being a total jerk– “OK ,Mr. President–you need to call the president of Pakistan—–and his name would be…?” “C’mon Dick–stop messin’ with me–it’s–I know it starts with an M…”