Two decades ago this weekend, a quartet of planes demolished Manhattan’s World Trade Center, struck the Pentagon and crashed into a Pennsylvania field. It meant 20 years of bad luck, war, suffering, and criminality. It’s said truth is the first casualty of war. And humor came right after that.
Cited repeatedly in Too Soon, Julie Seabaugh and Nick Fituri Scown’s new documentary about making jokes in the wake of 9/11, is the formula that “comedy is tragedy plus time.” It’s been attributed to Woody Allen, who no one wants to credit these days.
A mistimed jest is the difference between a chortling audience and a lynch mob. “Too soon” has long been a two-word excuse for the non-detonation of a joke. As David Cross says here: “To do a joke about the Holocaust you had to wait ’til at least 1947.” Facing a similar problem decades ago, comedian Lenny Bruce performed the night of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He silently studied the audience. And then, referring to the career of a once-popular Kennedy impersonator: “Well, Vaughn Meader is fucked!”
One of the things that gives Too Soon merit is a series of clips of the Howard Stern show as the news trickled in. Stern, the voice of a certain brand of New York raunchiness, and his crew tracked that day’s events the same way we all did — first believing the collision of the plane and the tower was pilot error. The public soaked in the spectacle, numb with horror. By Sept. 26, an official warning came from George W. Bush’s then press secretary Ari Fleischer: “Watch what you say.”
Bill Maher was the first to lose his job for countering the idea that the terrorists were cowardly, because it takes guts to fly a plane into a building. (Al Jean of The Simpsons decries the firing, saying of Maher’s comment: “It was factual.”)
If there was any especially brave comedy moment during the first quivering month after the attack, that moment starred japemeister Gilbert Gottfried. He is here, with that twisted mouth that seemingly just tasted something awful, the odd, heavy squint, and the raucous voice that could curdle gasoline. Contrast the way Gottfried handled 9/11 versus how SNL went on after a week. They carried on with dismal whimsy and funny wigs and game show parodies. They rounded up a team of first responders on the stage, with Lorne Michaels’ arm around the then-sane Rudy Gilulani.
Later that night, after SNL went to bed, Comedy Central aired a roast of Hugh Hefner. Gottfried sallied forth and told a since-infamous one-liner, derived from the airline joke comedians have been using since the Wright Brothers died. It’d be a shame to spoil it, but the audience groans and calls out “too soon.”
“I didn’t take a long enough pause between the set up and the punchline?” Gottfried pretends to wonder. He recovered — not with apology or schmaltz, but with the filthiest joke there is, the legend of those sophisticated vaudeville performers The Aristocrats.
Gottfriend is at the beginning of Too Soon, savoring the fact that people now tell 9/11 jokes routinely. “Back then was the time to do it,” he cracks.
This sometimes self-aggrandizing composite portrait of comedic angst searches the question of when and how to proceed. Almost immediately, we see the worst kind of response, getting the easy laugh by insulting Middle Easterners. On the morning of Sept. 11, one knew there was going to be revenge sought against innocent parties. Sikhs nationwide were attacked because they wore turbans; in 2011 a pair of grandfathers in Elk Grove (Sacramento County), Gurmej Singh Atwal and Surinder Singh, were shot (their killers have never been found).
The most depressing clip in Too Soon is Martin Lawrence in the concert movie Runteldat (2002). He’s doing an anti-turban routine, which is not just unfunny but ironic because a turban could only flatter Lawrence’s XXXL forehead. On the bright side, there soon came a counteroffensive against discrimination by a squad of South Asian comics. New opportunities arose for such comics as Ahmed Ahmed , Russell Peters, Aron Kadar, and Negin Farsad, all interviewed here. In the wake of 9/11 Farsad said she knew what she had to do: “I gotta start politicizing my fart jokes.” Soon came tours called “Axis of Evil,” “The Watch List,” and “Allah Made Me Funny.”
The Sept. 11 attacks didn’t help every comic’s career. Scott Thompson of The Kids in the Hall describes how he’d covered Manhattan with posters for a new show on the evening of Sept. 10, 2001. He feels the bad timing — the way people reacted to the gross-out material he was playing — has haunted his career ever since. Janeane Garafolo was a tireless advocate against the invasion of Iraq. Thus she had a target painted on her back by most loyal watchers of Fox News. She faced death threats, as did her family.
The dangerous comic Doug Stanhope speculated on how much hero-sex the first responders were getting, figuring it must be quite a lot. (He too was threatened by cranks for this bit of honesty.) Twenty years ago, the internet was just starting to take off. This may have been some performers’ first experience of being brigaded.
Too Soon reminds us of the importance of deliberately fake news during a time when the press is either afraid to speak out, or unwilling to sacrifice access to the mighty by calling out contradictions. The staff of The Onion had moved from the midwest to NYC in January 2001. One of Too Soon’s best sequences is watching the Onionites in their war room, wondering how to proceed after the terrorist attacks. Onion writer Todd Hanson, seen petting his cat, says what the staff sought was “the kind of comedy that makes people cry.” Thus, one of the headlines on their first post-9/11 issue: “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule.” This winner took the place of a bitterer joke, which they smothered: “America Stronger Than Ever, Say Quadragon Officials.”
And as the war changed focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, the supine press never challenged those still-at-large political schemers, with their snipe hunt for WMDs. Watching Jon Stewart on the Daily Show became a matter of sustenance. As it’s noted here, it was good Stewart was doing his job; it was terrible that he had to do it instead of the journalists who were supposed to be on the case. Equally necessary was the Daily Show’s spinoff, The Colbert Report, debuting in 2005. It featured Stephen Colbert’s expert mockery of the Tucker Carlson/Bill O’Reilly style. Colbert knew how to impersonate a bigfoot, as they call them: “A high-status idiot,” in his words, complete with rumbling self-importance, scrappy face, and cognitive-dissonant bullet points. Colbert was the avatar of what he termed ‘truthiness’ — television-grade, plausible-sounding bullshit.
Few could forget Colbert at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006, mock-thanking the journalists for their patriotic silence about the flaws of the War on Terror: “We Americans don’t want to know, and you were kind enough not to tell us.”
As cinema, Too Soon is pretty rote, with talking heads accompanied by painfully obvious music. But it’s an interesting study of how performers manage to come out of hiding, stir themselves and take some risks. By the end, the once-untouchable subject is almost cozy, as we see Sarah Silverman, Pete Davidson, and Joan Rivers mining some comedy gold out of the formerly smoking chasm at Ground Zero. The next time disaster strikes, we can hope the forces that make us laugh will be less tiptoe… that they’ll be more like Gottfried, ready to strike back with pure, strong graveyard humor. It’s only sensible to face political impotence with a laugh.