I am a child of television. I represent the first generation for whom, when we were born, the television was now a permanent fixture in our homes. Sadly the worst day in American history was captured on TV for all the world to see, unless you lived in Afghanistan where if you owned a television the Taliban sentenced you to death.
9/11 was a bad time for comedians, but let’s face it, it was much worse for a lot of other people. 3000 people dead and we’re wondering when is it okay to be funny again. I felt that what I do is so unimportant compared to the police and firefighters.
Of course like most of us on the West Coast, I was asleep in bed. About 10 minutes to 7:00 the phone rings and my wife Donna answered. It was our friend Susan. Then Donna grabbed the remote to turn on the TV, but turned off the cable box instead. She forgot how to operate the remotes. I got out of bed cranky and manually turned on the cable box and the TV. We watched Matt and Katie as all hell broke loose. I ran to the living room, got on the cell phone and called my mom while channel surfing between the all news cable stations. Now I don’t like using the “F” word in front of my mom, but on this day I made an exception. What the F? Who the F? How the F?
Somehow I forgot that I was a liberal and a pacifist and I think I know why. In 2000 and 2001, I lost three close family members. In my mind, I was getting through the grief process then someone else would die and I had a setback, then someone else would die and I had another set back. I described in my comedy routine, “I felt like I failed the grieving process and had to repeat it in summer school.” For the rest of that day I was glued to the TV news. That night we went to church, not our regular church, but the Hollywood Methodist Church. It was open and within walking distance. You know Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind sounds really cool as a hymn.
I wanted to write about what had happened but had the worst writer’s block I’d ever had. I’ve dealt with grief before through comedy. I wrote about having to go to a funeral in Orlando, Florida.
Where do you go for a funeral in Orlando, Florida? The Snow White Funeral Home? Just look for the sign with the 7 little pallbearers. “Hi Ho! Hi Ho! it’s in the ground you go!” That joking made me realize something. I can never remember the 5 stages of grief. You know, denial, anger… then I’m lost. But I found that the 7 dwarfs work well. The shock from the news made me Dopey. When the reality set in, I became Grumpy. Then I had to meet all these people at the funeral. When you’re not in the mood to meet new people, you become Bashful. Grieving messes with your immune system and I got Sneezey. Got help from Doc. He gave me something that made me Sleepy. But you’re supposed to be Happy because your loved ones are in a better place.
Now remember David Letterman had not come back on TV yet, giving comedians the green light to be funny again. Jay Mohr did a special show at the now reopened Laugh Factory. He told the press, “Everyone’s ignoring the Big Pink Elephant in the room and we decided to talk about it.” He was right. I tried to get some stage time. I was not sure what I was going to say, I just needed to be on stage, but only the Big Names were getting stage time. Still, where was that line that nobody wanted to cross? Comedy is a business where either you kill or bomb and can you even joke about that now. I ranted, “Singers had it easy… you know the words to God Bless America and you’re good to go.”
I kept hearing all these great singers sing God Bless America Then something in my Child of Television mind clicked while watching the memorial service at the national cathedral in Washington D.C. Remember prior to the attacks, Carroll O’Connor had died and in all the tributes they showed the same scene from All in the Family where Archie sings God Bless America. So while this mezzo-soprano sang her beautiful rendition of God Bless America, in the back of my head I heard Archie Bunker sing, “God bless America you dumb Pollack!”
And I had my first laugh. It started as a snicker. Then I actually looked around my living room to make sure no one saw me laugh in church. The absurdity of the situation caused me to laugh louder. All of a sudden, during a very solemn occasion I became Mary Tyler Moore at Chuckles the Clown’s funeral. Now I was finally able to write. I wrote of my fears, of my anger, I wrote about everything. Some of the material made my routine, some of the material I told at STORY SALON, some of the material was just for me as a release. But being able to laugh was important. For me it starts with the laughter then I can move on. I learned that what I do was important.
To quote David Letterman on September 17, 2001, “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 goddamn sense?”