Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11 makes its arrival on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the tragic attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
This documentary is in the same vein as that of The Last Laugh. There’s a mixture of how can comedians use humor when talking about 9/11 and how comedians helped us heal as a country following the tragic attacks. There is footage of the World Trade Centers falling down so I must warn you now if this will bring up PTSD.
Comedy clubs and the late night comedy talk shows went dark after 9/11. Many of us couldn’t help but stay glued to the news. The question that was being asked at the time was if we would ever be laughing again. I turned to music much in the same way that I did after my grandmother’s passing at the end of March 2001. Being a comedian or comedy writer after 9/11 came with walking a fine line. How do you respond by airing your feelings in a way that doesn’t cross a line? For some, this wasn’t a problem. For others, the line was crossed–Gilbert Gottfried turned to quite the joke after he joked way too soon about 9/11. This is a film that takes us back to the tragic day and asks comedians and comedy writers for their recollections. It may not be an easy watch but it’s important.
When it comes to the world of comedy, all of the late night comedy shows followed David Letterman’s lead. Nobody came back until after he came back to television. And when he did, it was less of being funny in as much as it was trying to make sense of things. His first guest on the show was CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather. Watching the clips from that night’s show still gives me chills. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart joined Letterman in coming back on the air shortly. Stewart appears in archival footage while then-correspondents Mo Rocca and Matt Walsh are interviewed here. Similarly, a few staffers from The Colbert Report discuss how Stephen Colbert brought truthiness to the air following the debut of his show. Wisely, we see clips from Colbert’s takedown upon headlining the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner.
The other big late night show featured during the documentary is Saturday Night Live. It’s represented by a few writers and cast members of the time. How they were able to come back on the air and be funny is honestly beyond me. I still remember watching that night’s show and seeing Lorne Michaels asking the now-disgraced Rudy Giuliani if they can be funny. The former mayor’s response? “Why start now.” What’s interesting is that this episode was airing on the same night as Comedy Central’s Roast of Hugh Hefner. Suffice it to say, a heckler’s comment in response to comedian Gilbert Gottfried joking about needing to leave early because of a plane connection at the Empire State Building is what gives this documentary it’s title: “Too soon!”
Meanwhile, there was Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher’s response. It didn’t go over well–his series was boycotted and subsequently killed. Personally, I’m just not a fan of Bill Maher. He blamed Donald Trumps win on things such as transgender rights when it came to the bathrooms. I’ll stop myself before going off on a tangent but you get the idea here.
The Onion‘s response to the attack make up a sizable amount of the documentary. Putting together a satirical print magazine during this time is no easy feat. What they did was print an issue in which they sorted through their feelings. One such example was a woman not knowing what else to do ends up baking a patriotic cake. This documentary beautifully captures the attitude that was taking place at their office.
Too Soon isn’t just about the immediate response in the aftermath of 9/11. It was one thing for President George W. Bush and company to lead a war against the terrorists but another to start invading Iraq. Twenty years later and there are still questions that we just can’t answer. But anyway, there were comedians that were not afraid to question the authorities. This is how we get The Daily Show and The Colbert Report becoming comedy powerhouses in their own right. You know you have a problem when a comedian like Jon Stewart can singlehandedly cancel CNN’s Crossfire series!
Beyond how shows and satirical magazines responded with humor afterwards, what is perhaps the most important thing here is seeing how Arab-American and Muslim comedians dealt with the aftermath. I’m not going to sit here and pretend I know what they’re going through when I don’t. Many of them were receiving death threats to the point. This speaks to America’s dark side and sadly, this dark side hasn’t gone away.
Filmmakers Nick Fituri Scown and Julie Seabaugh take us all the way through recent years where SNL comedian Pete Davidson frequently talks about his dad dying on 9/11. Are the jokes acceptable? It really depends on the audience.
It’s weird to live in an era where there are now college students that were born after this tragedy. But that’s beside the point. Many of us know exactly where we were when we heard about the attacks: keyboarding class (2nd period) at Ballard High School in Louisville, Ky. For my generation, it’s the equivalent to the JFK Assassination on November 22, 1963. And for my grandparent’s generation, it’s the equivalent of Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. These are dates that will live in infamy. All you need to hear is the date and you don’t have to hear anything else. But I digress.
Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11 is a documentary that does for September 11th what The Last Laugh did for the Holocaust by asking how soon is too soon.
DIRECTORS: Nick Fituri Scown, Julie Seabaugh
FEATURING: Aasif Mandvi, Adam Ferrara, Ahmed Ahmed, Al Jean, Allison Silverman, Andy Kindler, Aron Kader, Beth McCarthy-Miller, Carmen Lynch, Carol Kolb, Cedric the Entertainer, Chris Kattan, Chris Mazzilli, Cris Italia, Darrell Hammond, David Cross, Dean Edwards, Dean Obeidallah, Doug Stanhope, Eddie Brill, Eddie Pepitone, Estee Adoram, Hari Kondabolu, Ian Edwards, Jack Vaughn, Janeane Garofalo, Jeff Ross, Jesse Joyce, Jimmy Carr, Jimmy Pardo, Laurie Kilmartin, Lenny Clarke, Lewis Black, Lizz Winstead, Marc Maron, Mark DeMayo, Matt Walsh, Matthew Broderick, Maz Jobrani, Michael Schur, Nathan Lane, Mo Rocca, Negin Farsad, Rich Dahm, Rich Eisen, Rob Riggle, Robert Siegel, Rory Albanese, Russell Peters, Scott Thompson, Todd Barry, Todd Hanson