Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Comedy After 9/11

Okay, folks, this time I really am going to lighten up. I hate getting weird like the last couple of days, but the anniversary of 9/11 brought the beast up from the bottom of the swamp. I am that guy, but I'm also not. That terrorist stuff did happen to me, but I'll never fully accept that I'm one of those guys who have tragic stuff happen to them. It's just not me. I cringe when those feelings surface and I rejoice when the swamp thing sinks back down. The only cool part about discussing my best friend's death in an attack on a Pan Am jet all those years ago, is that I just heard from the lead guitarist from our band in those days! Blogs - spanning the globe and the decades! He lives in Dubai. So what was our group like? There was a time when we were the best rock and roll band in the whole country, but you have to remember, the country was Saudi Arabia. You know, I happened to hit a place called Noah's Bagels on Hawthorne yesterday and it has a map of the subway system in New York City, circa 1990, so it was heavy seeing the World Trade Center stop. Then while I was there a song called "Rock and Roll Hootchie Koo" came on, by the Edgar Winter Band with Rick Derringer. (I once won a T-shirt of Packy the Elephant for calling a radio station with another bit of rock history: Rick Derringer wrote, "Hang on Sloopy".) Anyways, I remember playing that "Rock and Roll Hootchie Koo" song with my early rock band - so we had the chops and energy to pull that off, no problem.

Let's get back to proud moments in comedy. I was actually writing jokes when 9/11 happened. In those days I had to find 16 wacky stories and write 3 jokes each, plus 7 more about what's on TV that night, and then 7 for Jay Leno. So that was 62 jokes a day. These days, the radio service sends me the stories so the number of jokes is not a constant, but it's still probably over 40 a day. Anyway, before those towers even hit the ground, I was laid off from comedy writing. All the late night shows went dark and non-stop coverage of 9/11 dominated everything - as if I have to tell you.

Articles began appearing talking about what this had done to our collective sense of humor. The Age of Irony was supposed to be dead, which was ironic because I had no idea we were in the Age of Irony. All I knew is that nobody - including me - could imagine laughing at anything. It was the same way when you get really sick with the flu and you don't want to think about eating fancy spicy dishes. It just made you woozy to try and go there.

So that first week went by, and David Letterman was to return Monday. He started that show with a heartbreaking speech, and then later Dan Rather came out and actually broke down in tears on the air. I knew Leno was coming back Tuesday, a week after 9/11, so the weekend before, I wrote him a note and spent some time thinking how to handle it. I should look for the FAX - it's here someplace in my "files" - but it basically started with, "So, you wanted to go into the comedy business, huh?" We - the humor writers of America - had a problem. The country was the toughest room in comedy history. There were so many subjects that were off limits. The humor had to be on an official level - you couldn't just start with a showbiz celebrity joke, and yet you couldn't make fun of President Bush or any current leader. Nothing worked. This sounds weird but it was even too soon to make fun of the terrorists. In fact, you couldn't even refer to the incident directly. So there was only one thing in the entire world people were thinking about and you couldn't mention it. Folks, I did not go into comedy for the intensive labor. I usually write these jokes as fast as I can type. The 50 or so often take around an hour and 15 minutes, and the stuff for Leno? Sometimes as little as 10. I can write marketable jokes at rates that would fry a mainframe. It's mentally challenging but it's quick - it means I only have to work a couple of hours a day, although I do the work of 4 comedy writers in that time. This is the quirky gift I have that allows me to be free. I don't know if the terrorists hate us for our freedom or not, but they damn sure were impinging on mine after 9/11. I also felt that older sibling thing, as described in the posts below. I had gone through my own private 9/11 when I was 19, so I had an advantage most Americans didn't have in reacting. I had been there. One interesting aside: I've also been to the top of one of the World Trade Center towers and checked out the Windows on the World restaurant. Sigh.

That weekend I spent quite a while trying to write some jokes. Jay Leno came back Tuesday with his own heartbreaking speech, but by Wednesday, he tried the first monologue since 9/11. Letterman, who was right there in New York, would just open at his desk, so I believe Leno's was the first attempt at professional standup humor on television since the whole thing happened. It was 8 days after 9/11. September 19th. Somewhere in my "filing system" I also have the pay stub for that date, because Jay opened that show with my joke. That's right. I had the first joke after 9/11. It was, "This is a tough time for comedy, but we've had other tough times. Remember when President Clinton stopped dating for 3 weeks? That was a tough time for comedy, too."

The studio crowd barely chuckled. I don't know about after Pearl Harbor, but given the increase in TV sets, I'd have to say my joke faced the longest odds ever. America was the toughest room in comedy history. Watching at home, I didn't feel anything. No joy. Nothing. Of course, years later, this has gone on to be a proud moment in my so-called "career", but at the time I was just like everyone else - too blown away to feel anything. It was dark in the room except for my TV, and I remember watching the joke, and noting the slight, forced, painful laughter. I was hurt, unamused and unemployed. When the crowd finished their mild chuckle, I muttered something into the night: "Take that, Osama."


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