After Sept. 11, many Americans wondered when comedy would be appropriate again

By Ken Tucker
October 29, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
David Letterman Illustration by Roberto Parada

On Oct. 12, anthrax anxiety swept New York when news broke that a letter containing the deadly bacterium had been sent to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw. On Oct. 15, the offices of ABC’s ”World News Tonight With Peter Jennings” suddenly had its own anthrax nightmare to deal with. And a few days later, David Letterman made the following announcement: ”CBS News finally received anthrax in the mail,” he said referring to a bacteria-laced letter addressed to Dan Rather. ”As usual, we’re number three.” The next evening, he neatly managed to encapsulate anthrax angst and America’s most prominent new enemy in a single cutting remark: ”We’re learning more and more about Osama bin Laden…turns out he started in the mailroom.” Clearly Dave was back in a joking mood, but in the days immediately following the Sept. 11 tragedy, Letterman was exceedingly serious, even pessimistic. ”At first, Dave said flatly, we’ll never do a show again,” says Rob Burnett, one of ”Late Show”’s executive producers. ”Then, every day, things started to feel different, with the President and Mayor Giuliani pushing people to get back to work. Dave decided to do ‘Late Show’ the night before he returned” on Sept. 17. ”We didn’t write any jokes because any joke that was prepared felt false.”

Minutes before taping that broadcast, no one — not even Dave’s bosses at CBS in Los Angeles — knew what David Letterman was going to do or say. Burnett says, ”That first show back after the terrorist incidents, all any of us knew was this: The show would open with a shot of Dave — without the main titles and the music, just him sitting at the desk. And then Dave planned to talk. And we didn’t know if it would go for 30 seconds, or for the full hour. We just didn’t know.”

What we all saw was a Letterman shaken and stirred: rattled to his bones about the assault on the city his show inhabits, and moved to anger, grief, and bafflement. Speaking of the terrorists’ acts, he said, ”If you live to be 1,000 years old…will that make any goddamn sense?” He brought out Dan Rather, who shed tears and with whom Letterman tried to engage in some explanation of the cruel devastation. Later, out came a Dave-fave guest, Regis Philbin. The host fixed him with a glare and, out of left field, asked, ”How did you first meet Joey Bishop?” This silly non sequitur capped a triumphant night.

”He has an astounding show business sense,” says Philbin. It was ”Dave at his best — most honest — and most revealing…. Even though he won’t have dinner with me.”

A pleased CBS president Les Moonves says, ”I think he showed why he’s the best guy in late night. What Letterman has been trying to portray is that it’s more than about jokes. The reason he is so fascinating…is because he’s so unexpected.” After Sept. 17, the other talk shows returned in quick succession, but it was Letterman who’d set the pace, who’d shaped the form entertainment would take in late night.

”He was the Magellan spacecraft that we sent out,” says ”Daily Show” host Jon Stewart. ”There’s a part of me that really looked to him not just for my own emotional well-being afterward, which is a heavy burden to place on him, but for what to do as someone who’s in this industry. For us, it felt like Dave had already kicked in a window and let in some fresh air…. It’s a very odd time, and for someone to be able to be as calm and funny and human as he’s been over the past month — doing what he’s doing has been a comfort and a nice distraction.”

And wiseacre late-night hosts aren’t the only ones consoled by the big guy. In fact, Jerry Seinfeld, who had hastily canceled two stand-up dates because of the tragedy, publicly credited Dave for forging an impressively reverent-but-still-rib-tickling post?9/11 path. ”It was a very hard decision, when you could go back to doing comedy,” said Seinfeld. ”Then I saw the things Letterman was doing. He handled it so well.” Turns out Letterman is just doing what comes naturally. ”Unlike other disasters, this is not a story that’s finished,” says Burnett. ”I think what you’re often seeing from Dave is less calculation and more emotion.” This idea is echoed by the executive producer of ”Everybody Loves Raymond,” Philip Rosenthal, whose show is produced by Letterman’s Worldwide Pants company but who has little contact with Letterman other than as a viewer: ”There’s a depth of character that he has now that he didn’t have before. His humor has always been somewhat exclusive — a tendency to poke fun at others. And now I feel because of what’s happened and because of what he’s allowed to show about himself, it can’t help but be more inclusive. That to me is always better. That’s just from a show business point of view. Then from a human being point of view, it was absolutely lovely. He did it better than anybody. He made a transition from shock and grief to humor very gracefully. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody ever do that.”

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