Nick Scown spoke with Solzy at the Movies about the new documentary, Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11, airing on VICE TV on September 8.
In addition to Wednesday’s airing on VICE TV, the documentary will also screen during the Dances With Films Festival at the TCL Chinese Theatre on September 11.
It’s been a long five year journey for Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11. How relieving is it to finally have this film out there in front of an audience?
Nick Scown: It’s really great. It feels sort of like running a really long marathon and so it’s good to see the finish line and now to enjoy a nice meal, relax, and not do anything for a little while. But yeah, it’s been a long five years but a rewarding one to now get the movie in front of audiences.
At what point did, Julie Seabaugh come onto the film?
Nick Scown: She came on at the very beginning about five years ago. It’s an idea I’d had for a long time and actually ended up reading a book called The 4-Hour Workweek, which I was going to give to a family member who was not happy with their current career. I was like, well, I should probably read a little this book before I give it to them as a gift. I read it and really liked it. It had a thing—if there’s an idea that you’ve been thinking about for a long time or a business you’re thinking of doing, are there five people that you can email about that that might be able to help you?
I had met Julie at a friend’s wedding and she was a comedy journalist so I thought, Okay, well, I’ll see if this idea has any legs or if it’s good idea and pitch it to her. She was like, yeah, this is great—what do we do now? It was like, well, we could try and pitch this and have someone give us permission or we could just start shooting it ourselves and just try and make it happen. She was game for that.
In the beginning, it was just the two of us with borrowed camera gear and audio equipment flying to New York or Just for Laughs on credit card points, hotel points, frequent flyer miles, and getting in any interview we could. So yeah, she was there from the start, thankfully, because I literally wouldn’t have been able to make it without her because a good idea is only as good as how it gets executed. I wouldn’t have been able to execute anything without her help. I’ve never co directed anything before and this is why it’s good. She was there from the start and helping us create the film.
I imagine it definitely helped that she had the comedy credentials that publicists and comedians were probably looking at.
Nick Scown: Yeah. She’s been doing it for almost two decades now so she also just knows a lot of people. Especially in the early days, a lot of it was just talking to the friends in the comedy world and getting help and that helped build momentum, almost like a snowball effect, where, because we’ve got Todd Barry, now we can go to David Cross. Now that we have David Cross, we can get Janeane Garofalo and now we can get Marc Maron. Now that we have them, we can go to some of the other names that we maybe didn’t get answers from before and now they’re replying to us because they see that it’s a real project with people that they—if you see Gilbert Gottfried like, Okay, if Gilbert is going to talk about his joke, then I can probably talk about mine.
Were there any comedians that you all wanted but couldn’t get?
Nick Scown: There were definitely people who we reached out to and especially towards the end here, once we finally had a home for the film with VICE, that we kind of re-approached a lot of the bigger names to try and get their perspectives. It’d be great to have David Letterman or Jon Stewart and a lot of them—also we were finishing the film during the pandemic and so there’s a lot of concerns of how do we do this safely? There’s a talk show host who was like, “This is a good idea, great project—but that was the most depressing time in my life. I really don’t want to revisit right now.” We’re like, we totally get it like, times are tough enough already. We don’t need to bring you down even worse.
What we tried to do in the cases for the people that we wanted to get their perspectives but we didn’t have an interview chair, we found archival interview clips for David Letterman, Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert so that we still get some of their insight and perspective of what it was like and the challenges they were facing. We didn’t feel the film would be complete without those voices. We tried to get as much as we could ourselves and then what we couldn’t, we relied on some archival interviews to fill in those gaps.
At least for me, Too Soon is one of the few 9/11-related films that I’m covering. I cannot go through that PTSD all over again.
Nick Scown: Yeah. We’re very conscious of trying to—we don’t want to traumatize anyone or re-traumatize anyone. We have some people who were there that day in the film and some first responders—the last thing we wanted to do was make a film that they couldn’t watch themselves because it would be too much. We tried to find a balance of either reminding the audience or for younger viewers, informing them of how shocking it was and how distressed everybody was so that they understand the challenges that were taking place for the performers after 9/11 but we didn’t want to do anything gratuitous or like that. We tried to use still photos for that section just because we feel like with news coverage, we’ve seen these videos so much that we just didn’t want to do that again. We tried to find a way and we hope that still photos is a way it doesn’t affect the audience so much that they don’t want to watch because we do want them to get to the other side to the healing part of the movie and how comedy does that.
In just watching the clip of Dan Rather with David Letterman, I had chills all over again.
Nick Scown: Yeah. Having worked on this, we had to do that a lot. Whenever we would talk to the film or interview someone, they would sometimes remind us, oh, yeah, that moment—the Dan Rather interview or the first time Jon Stewart came back. Those were all very meaningful to us and then a lot of the other comics like Adam Ferrara saying, Oh, yeah, when I saw Jon Stewart, and his kind of opening monologue, then I was like, Okay, I do need to get back to work. I need to do my job, which is to talk about what we’re all going through and hope that helps my audience, helps connect us all again. That was that was definitely a thing that happened a lot where were people would remind us of these kind of touchdown moments. We would try and be like, Okay, how can we fit this in?
Of course, you have Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels asking the now-disgraced then-New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, “Can we be funny again?” “Why start now?” And that’s happening on the same night as the Hugh Hefner roast where Gilbert Gottfried—easily the worst joke I’ve heard, especially for that soon right after!
Nick Scown: For us, that was the one of the crazy coincidences. We all remember the Saturday Night Live thing and the Gilbert roast was a big thing but it didn’t air for, I think, a month or a couple weeks after they recorded it but it was actually that same night. If you think about the difference between Saturday Night Live’s approach and Gilbert’s approach, Gilbert going right towards the elephant in the room and Saturday Night Live being like, Okay, how can we be funny and just give people like a nice little respite from what they’re dealing with. For us, that was an amazing thing. We didn’t even have that in an early cut—that idea. And then someone was like, why are these put back to back? It’s like, oh, it was the same nigh. Well, you’ve got to tell us it was the same night because that’s an amazing thing—in the same night in New York City, just a couple blocks away, you have these two different attempts at finding humor in the moment and seeing the vast difference in the wide gap that one could have at that time is pretty remarkable.
Did you ever consider cutting Louis C.K. out of the film?
Nick Scown: Yes, that has been something we’ve spent a lot of time discussing and talking about. I think it’s good, again, why we were a good team—Julie and I could have a discussion where if it was just one of us, maybe we wouldn’t have come to a different decision but Julie, I think she always says, it’s part of the historic record and to not put it in there, are we not doing him justice by history. This is a joke that many comedians remember and many pointed to as one of the most remembered 9/11 jokes. How can we put context around it so that it doesn’t become a distraction from the story we’re telling?
We hope that we put enough in there of being like yes, this is a terrible joke. We know it’s a terrible joke but it is a joke that, for comedians and comics, is very historically a recognized joke within the community and so we need to put it in there. Hopefully, it doesn’t take people out of the film but that was definitely something we spent many, many, many days and nights discussing and making sure that that we were doing the right thing as far as depicting what happened and at the same time, not sabotaging our own film.
There was a while where you had both this film and Pretty Bad Actress going on at the same time.
Nick Scown: Yeah, there was while there were I was getting Pretty Bad Actress out to theaters and getting that released and doing this at the same time. It has been a five year process and so it’s been a lot of juggling of life around this and trying to find a vacation to fit some interviews in for this one. I ended up doing some work for the campaign season last fall because it just felt really important at that time to do whatever I could to help try and save democracy. I was trying to do that and this film. It was a lot of times where I had been trying to find the right balance of keeping this one going but also doing stuff that felt like, oh, this is important at the moment—getting Pretty Bad Actress out like, okay, I want this to get out in the world so people can see it and then also do right by Too Soon.
In addition to the VICE TV airing, there’s also the screening at the TCL Chinese Theatre. Is this going to be your first time having a film play at that historic theater?
Nick Scown: It will be my first documentary there. We had a screening way back of Pretty Bad Actress at the Dances With Films Festival, which is how I knew them. It’s great anytime you can see your work on a big screen with an audience. I love going to movie theaters. It was one of the things that I really missed during the pandemic and especially something like this where, hopefully, we get people laughing and hearing that immediate response from an audience is priceless. I’m super excited for the screening and I’m glad they found a good slot for us with the 20th anniversary nearly here to do that. My partner, Kathi, hasn’t seen the movie yet. It’s just the thing I’ve been working on in the office that she’ll see brief glimpses of. The first time that she actually sees the movie will be on the big screen there. My mom is coming out, too. It’ll be a great event to see the film.
What do you hope people take away from watching Too Soon?
Nick Scown: It’s funny. It’s kind of evolved as we’ve gone along, which I guess with any kind of art, where it comes out in history will affect it in some way. Just with the world we’re in now, a friend said and I hope this is what other audiences take away: “I really didn’t want to watch a documentary about 9/11 but I’m glad I watched this one because it reminded me that we do find a way out of these holes that we end up in sometimes. It can seem like the end of the world right now but we are going to find a way through this and we’re even going to maybe joke about it and laugh about it years from now and it’ll be aright.” He was like, I was not expecting that from a 9/11 documentary for me to have that feeling of, oh, okay, everything will be alright—eventually, we’ll get through this.
I hope audiences have a similar reaction. Just me personally, I’ve taken away just how important comedy is in my life of just—it does help me process the traumas of everyday life. I don’t know if I would have survived last presidency without the late night talk show hosts making jokes.
Nick Scown: It really does just—it’s a bomb and a sob that really just help you through the day. I don’t know that when people would say like, who’s the protagonist? It’s like, well, the comics are the heroes. They’re the ones who are finding a way to still crack jokes when we need them. Even if we don’t think we need them, sometimes we do. That’s hopefully the things—kind of respect for comedians and how they help us. I think Dean Obeidallah says, it’s almost like a group therapy session. Rather than keeping everything bottled up, it helps us express what we’re thinking and what we’re feeling and that helps us get towards the healing part of things. For Julie and I, that was a big thing was like the idea of tragedy plus time equals comedy, and you’re like, well, it’s really tragedy plus time plus comedy equals healing. Our hope is that people feel that that same way when they watch the film.