“Saturday Night Live”’s 27th season premiere was scheduled to air just 18 days after the 9/11 attacks. Reese Witherspoon was going to host and Alicia Keys was scheduled to perform as musical guest; it would be Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler’s first show as new cast members.
The question loomed over the heads of “SNL”’s staff: Will the show go on? Creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels answered that the show must go on. At 11:30 p.m. EST on Sept. 29, 2001, “Saturday Night Live" aired the first episode of its 27th season. The cold open featured former Mayor Rudy Giuliani alongside Lorne Michaels. Behind them stood a group of New York City’s finest — firefighters and police officers with uniforms still covered in the dust and ashes from Ground Zero. Mayor Giuliani spoke about the importance of preserving New York institutions like “SNL” and Michaels asked the question we were all thinking, “Can we be funny?” Giuliani responded with perfect timing, “Why start now?”
In a time where calamity befalls calamity, I look back on this moment in comedy history for guidance. In the wake of tragedy, can we be funny?
Stephen Colbert said, “You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time.” If Colbert believes laughter is the best medicine for fear, then I believe as well. If fear can be cured by laughter, I think we should all take a big huff of laughing gas every damned morning. If fear can be cured by laughter, John Mulaney is my doctor and he just prescribed America with 1000 mg of side-splitting snickers. If fear can be cured by laughter, then the only option in fearful times like these is to laugh — laugh with friends, laugh with family, laugh with your roommate, laugh with your cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, laugh with the people you hold dear.
In the wake of tragedy, can we be funny?
On Saturday night, hours after I discovered that 11 of my people were murdered in Pittsburgh during Shabbat services, I was to go on stage and make people laugh. My improv group was to perform, as we do every month, in Angell Hall, in front of an audience of our peers. But, now, how were we supposed to go on? How could we go on stage with the purpose of comedy during such tragedy? As students lined up outside Auditorium A, we asked ourselves the question if we could be funny. Could we really be funny for an audience that was just crying? Could we really be funny, as natives and strangers to Pittsburgh alike, for ourselves? In a well-timed response, we looked at one another and asked, “Why start now?”
All of the funds we collected from that show will be given to the families of the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre. The laughter we created will fund part of a Shiva, a funeral, or the rebuilding of a temple destroyed by senseless hatred.
In the wake of tragedy, can we be funny?
If we stop living, laughing and loving, fear has won. The show must go on. And after we can wipe away the tears and look towards a better future, we are ready to live again; we are ready to laugh again.
After a national tragedy, we are in a period of mourning as a country. Acts of terror remind us how much hate there is in the world and it is beyond scary. Eleven people were murdered for being Jewish, and the Anti-Defamation League reported that it was the deadliest attack on Jews in this country. In this terrifying time, it helps just a little to find the good in the world. To remember those who helped: the neighbors, the community and the brave service men and women. Because now more than ever, we need good, we need love, we need laughter.
In parting, dear reader, I offer you several anecdotes that never cease to put a smile on my face. A few funny lines that have circulated around many a Shabbat dinner table and Passover Seder. Some classic Jewish jokes that my uncle brings back time and again from his box of borscht belt comedy. Because we could all use a smile right now. Jews believe in the sanctity of numbers, and three is a good number — three patriarchs, three daily prayers and the Kabbalistic belief that there are three pillars in the mystical diagram of the Tree of Life. Therefore, I have listed three Jewish jokes for your laughing pleasure. Also, I couldn’t choose just one.
How do you know Jesus was Jewish? Four reasons: One, he was 30, unmarried and still living with his mother. Two, he went into his father’s business. Three, he thought his mother was a virgin. Four, his mother thought he was God.
Two elderly women are at a Catskill Mountain resort. And one of them says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know — and such small portions.”
Three bubbies are sitting on a park bench. The first one lets out a heartfelt “Oy!” A few minutes later, the second bubbie sighs deeply and says “Oy vey!” A few minutes after that, the third bubbie brushes away a tear and moans, “Oy veyizmir!” To which the first bubbie replies: “I thought we agreed we weren’t going to talk about our children!”