What differentiates comedians from your funniest friend is not that they are funnier. It’s that they can be funny to strangers, on demand. “The difficulty in doing stand-up comedy is not knocking down the pins,” veteran stand-up comedian Brian Regan once told me. “A lot of people can be funny and knock down the pins. It’s setting up the pins that weren’t there to begin with.” Broadly speaking, when people go to the comedy club, they leave their baggage at home; the comedian gets them to be so in-the-moment that they can laugh about trivial problems. So on September 11, 2001, the question facing stand-up comedians was not just practical, but existential. Comedians wondered if people would be able to laugh — not when, if, as in if ever again. They didn’t have to wonder long; stand-ups tend to be pathologically incapable of turning down stage time. Shows stayed on the books, so comedians performed, and audiences came to see them. But imagine trying to joke about airplane food on September 12. Performing stand-up in the weeks following 9/11 was like trying to set up bowling pins on a waterbed during an earthquake.
We are now used to the calm voice of a late-night host after a mass shooting, but in those first couple weeks, people weren’t ready, expecting, or wanting to process what happened. Many comedians didn’t talk about it or simply made a passing reference at the top of their sets. The comedians who did feel an obligation to talk it out were sometimes received positively and sometimes received combatively. Sheryl Underwood was thanked after a show by an air-traffic controller who helped guide United Flight 93, while Marc Maron was confronted by a Marine in the audience telling him “You can’t say that.” Looking back on his first post-9/11 stand-up set, David Cross put it this way: “I would say the audience was not nearly as comfortable as I was talking about it.”
In the following conversations with 37 comedians, the more significant role stand-ups played begins to materialize. Books, movies, and television shows that tried to wrestle with the attacks were written in private, with time to process, but touring stand-up comedians were learning how they felt on the ground. Especially for comedians who make their money on the road, acts are often a collaboration with audiences since material is built each show, each night, based on audience reaction. Many of the comedians took a populist approach. Sometimes that meant a focus on joy and making sure everyone had a good time, but sometimes that resulted in jingoism and Islamophobia. Every comedian’s response to the attack wasn’t necessarily positive, just like every American’s wasn’t. Comedy didn’t save the country after 9/11, but it did reflect it.
“My white American friends were super scared for me, but I wasn’t nervous at all.”
I started doing stand-up comedy nine months before 9/11 and was doing five to seven spots a week all over New York City when the terrorists attacked. My first set back was on September 21, 2001 at Bananas Comedy Club in Hackensack, New Jersey, which was booked prior to the tragedy. I am an entertainer, and the show must go on. I am also an Arab Muslim Jersey girl who was suddenly being painted as an un-American enemy of the shore, so I thought it was super important to get back onstage and tell tampon jokes. I never considered canceling it.
My white American friends were super scared for me, but I wasn’t nervous at all. Getting back onstage was one of the greatest moments of my life. Seeing the city in ruins across the Hudson broke my heart. I was so happy to be back doing what I loved.
I talked about 9/11 right off the bat. I had no choice. I did a joke based in reality about how my best friend called me and asked me, “What do you know?” — like did I have a heads-up? But I didn’t try to find a joke in the tragedy. We all lost people that day. It is still too soon to laugh about. But everything surrounding it is fair game. Especially the bigotry and hate my community was targeted with — that is comedy gold. And the audience seemed relieved. This was Jersey; we witnessed it firsthand. I remember noticing people really happy to see each other. I had a great set. They laughed wildly.