Friday, September 11, 2015

How two comedy greats went back to work after September 11, 2001

September 11th news

David Letterman on September 17, 2001:

Welcome to the Late Show. This is our first show on the air since New York and Washington were attacked. And I need to ask your patience and indulgence here. . . . If we are going to continue to do shows, I just need to hear myself talk for a couple of minutes, and so, that's what I'm going to do here. It's terribly sad here in New York City. We've lost 5,000 fellow New Yorkers. And you can feel it. You can see it. . . . And watching all of this, I wasn't sure that I should be doing a television show. . . .

In the 20 years that we've been here in New York City, we've worked closely with the police officers and firefighters. And fortunately, most of us don't really have to think too much about what these men and women do on a daily basis. And the phrase "New York's finest" and "New York's bravest" — you know, did it mean anything to us personally, first-hand? Well, maybe, hopefully, but probably not. But boy, it means something now, doesn't it? They put themselves in harm's way to protect people like us. . . . And my hope for myself and everybody else . . . is that we never, ever take these people for granted. . . .

The reason we were attacked, the reason these people are . . . missing and dead, and they weren’t doing anything wrong, they were living their lives, they were going to work, they were traveling, they were doing what they normally do . . . as I understand it, and my understanding of this is vague at best — another smaller group of people stole some airplanes and crashed them into buildings. And we’re told that they were zealots, fueled by religious fervor. Religious fervor. And if you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any goddamned sense?

I’ll tell you about a thing that happened last night. There’s a town in Montana by the name of Choteau. It’s about a hundred miles south of the Canadian border. And I know a little something about this town. It’s 1,600 people. And it’s an ag-business community, which means farming and ranching. And Montana’s been in the middle of a drought for, I don’t know, three years? And if you’ve got no rain, you can’t grow anything. And if you can’t grow anything, you can’t farm. And if you can’t grow anything, you can’t ranch, because the cattle don’t have anything to eat. And that’s the way life is in a small town, 1,600 people. Last night at the high school auditorium in Choteau, Montana, . . . they had . . . a rally . . . to raise money for New York City. And if that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the . . . the spirit of the United States, then I can’t help you. I’m sorry.

Rolling Stone notes that Letterman got married 8 years later in Choteau, Montana.

Notice how Letterman started out: "If we are going to continue to do shows . . ." That seems like a silly thing to say now. But back then, he was invoking a serious concern: it didn't seem to make sense for anyone to do a comedy show anymore. Everything seemed to have turned completely serious all of a sudden, and it was hard to imagine ever getting out of it. That's probably how people often feel in response to the death of a loved one — but that happens privately, not to the whole country at once.

It's interesting to compare how Letterman and Stewart dealt with the situation. In many ways, they were similar: they both highlighted inspiring Americans and lambasted the terrorists' way of life. But their emotional quality was different. Letterman was clearly rattled, but he also had a steadily controlled determination. Jon Stewart seemed absolutely raw and barely able to get through a sentence. He was speaking three days later than Letterman, but he seemed like he was speaking the day after the attacks. They were both great in their own ways.

This was Jon Stewart on September 20, 2001:

I'm sorry to do this to you. It's another entertainment show beginning with an overwrought speech of a shaken host, and television is nothing if not redundant. . . . They said to get back to work. And there were no jobs available for "a man in the fetal position under his desk crying" — which I gladly would have taken. So I come back here. . . .

We sit in the back and we throw spitballs, but never forgetting the fact that it is a luxury in this country that allows us to do that — that is, a country that allows for open satire. And I know that sounds like it goes without saying, but that's really what this whole situation is about. It's the difference between closed and open. It's the difference between free and burdened. And we don't take that for granted here. . . .

I wanted to tell you why I grieve, but why I don't despair. . . . One of my first memories is of Martin Luther King being shot. I was five. . . . That was a tremendous test of this country’s fabric. And this country’s had many tests before that and after that. And the reason I don’t despair is because — this attack happened. It’s not a dream. But the aftermath of it, the recovery, is a dream realized. And that is Martin Luther King’s dream. Whatever barriers we’ve put up are gone, even if it’s just momentary. And we’re judging people by not the color of their skin, but the content of their character.

And you know, all this talk about: “These guys are criminal masterminds. They got together, and their extraordinary guile, and their wit and their skill.” . . . It’s a lie! Any fool can blow something up. Any fool can destroy. But to see . . . these firefighters, these policemen, and people from all over the country, literally, with buckets, rebuilding. That’s extraordinary. And that's why we’ve already won. It’s light, it's democracy. . . . They can’t shut that down. They live in chaos, and chaos, it can’t sustain itself. It never could. It’s too easy, and it’s too unsatisfying.

The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center. And now it’s gone. They attacked it! This symbol of American ingenuity and strength and labor and imagination and commerce, and it is gone! But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. The view from the south of Manhattan is now the Statue of Liberty. You can’t beat that.

So we’re going to take a break . . . and we’re going to get back to this. And it's going to be fun and funny, and it’s going to be the same as it was.

Now the World Trade Center is back. And we've recently said goodbye to David Letterman and Jon Stewart. They quietly played a role in helping America work through its feelings after the unthinkable happened.

(Photo by my mom, Ann Althouse.)