Live from New York: Revisiting the totally bonkers era of post-9/11 'SNL'

NBC Universal / Saturday Night Live / YouTube screenshot

It's hard to capture the overwhelming sense of dread, confusion, and grief that permeated every moment that followed the shared national trauma of Sept. 11, 2001. So much of what we take for granted now was born that day: the 24-hour news cycle, the endless chyron doomscroll, the perpetual state of paranoid hyper-focus sprinkled with a healthy dose of exhausted resignation to forces bigger than ourselves.

Much like the past two years of pandemic living, there was the unspoken question: When do we get back to normal? It was a question that transformed into something broader, more existential: What does "normal" look like now?

It was into this atmosphere that Saturday Night Live began its 27th season on Sept. 29. And right from the start, it was clear that the show would struggle to have it both ways, opening with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, surrounded by firefighters and police officers, declaring, "We will not yield to terrorism. We will not let our decisions be made out of fear. We choose to live our lives in freedom." Then, the camera pans inexplicably to Paul Simon, a longtime member of the show's famous "five-timers" club, for an extended performance of "The Boxer." Finally, after a few more jingoistic platitudes that would become commonplace in the weeks after 9/11, producer Lorne Michaels set the scene for the strange duality the show would try to span in its first night back. He asked Giuliani for permission to be funny again. The mayor's punchline: "Why start now?"

It was this fealty to authority — cheeky but ultimately deferential — that would come to define SNL's post-9/11 ethos and establish a strange tension for a show that had scorched itself into the zeitgeist two decades earlier by being radically iconoclastic.

Paul Simon performing on 'SNL' while then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani stands with a group of first responders on Sept. 29, 2001. [Dana Edelson/NBC]

"My entire act was making fun of politicians and we were suddenly in a place where, like it or not, and whether we understand it or not, these people that I've been making fun of are standing between us and another horror show," cast member Darrell Hammond told Rolling Stone for an oral history published this week about that first episode. "They're the ones with the buildings burning that are coming to the door and saying, 'Come this way with me.' They're in charge of that. And people didn't want to see them made fun of."

Writer Hugh Fink expressed the flip side of Hammond's sentiment, explaining that when it came to that episode's cold open: "I remember going, 'Wow, this is not the message I was expecting Saturday Night Live to be sending. This is flag-waving. This is very patriotic. But there's absolutely no edge, and it's not funny. It's just dead serious.'"

"It's how I feel about Super Bowl halftime shows, or the preamble to the Super Bowl," Fink added. "It's like, 'They're going to bring out the flag! They’re going to bring out kids from a Christian group!' They'll just throw every possible symbol that represents knee-jerk, rah-rah America. I felt that's what the cold open did."

Aside from that initial burst of that episode's patriotism-tinged sentimentality, SNL wasn’t ready to wade into the murky waters of this brave new post-9/11 world just yet. The episode's only other acknowledgments of the day were an attempt by host Reese Witherspoon to cut the tension with a bizarre, non sequitur joke during her opening monologue, an extended Weekend Update gag about Rev. Jesse Jackson’s abortive attempt to meet with Taliban leaders, and a broad thank you to New York's various first responders during the closing goodbyes.

A week later, on Oct. 6, the show seemed to find its footing and was prepared to tackle the prevailing mood of the nation much more directly. A last-minute hosting change from Ben Stiller to American Pie’s Seann William Scott was, for a time, attributed to Stiller's reluctance to host a comedy show soon after the attacks. (SNL producer Marci Klein has pushed back on that narrative, claiming it was simply a scheduling snafu).

By early October, it was increasingly clear the United States was headed toward some sort of significant military operation in Afghanistan — airstrikes began hours after the show wrapped, on Oct. 7. This gave the show some direction to ease into its second episode, with Will Ferrell playing President George W. Bush and threatening Osama bin Laden with equal parts Texas bluster and buffoonish stupidity. "Guess what, amigo," Bush warns. "I'm coming to get you. I'm not alone, either. The American people are right behind me." (Part of the skit appears at 0:51 in the video here.)

SNL's writers softened the grisly reality of what was to come, casting Bush as a John Wayne-type righteous avenger — a dumb one, but not an evil one.

The effect of the sketch is twofold. It mocked Bush's goofy, malapropism-prone cowboy shtick and echoed the surging tide of uncritical patriotism that followed the attacks. The "joke" may have been at Bush's expense, but the message was in perfect alignment with the country's enthusiastic pro-war sentiment.

"Make no mistake: We're coming for you, bin Laden," Ferrell-as-Bush promises in the closing moments of the sketch. "I'm gonna make you my own personal Where's Waldo. And unlike those frustrating Waldo books, I'm gonna find you. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but maybe tomorrow."

Those lines, stripped of Ferrell's jokey exaggeration, reflected the broader posturing that was currently happening at the highest levels of power. Rather than question that posturing, SNL's writers softened the grisly reality of what was to come, casting Bush as a John Wayne-type righteous avenger — a dumb one, but not an evil one.

The lack of critical pushback against the coming war was even more apparent in the show's two most pointed 9/11-themed segments. The first came during the episode's installment of Weekend Update. Host Jimmy Fallon sets up the bit by announcing that fellow cast member Tracy Morgan was here "to set the record straight." The "record" is that 9/11 has inspired Morgan to become a fan of racial profiling. Here are his remarks in full:

I know in the past, I've popped a lot of jokes about the police and how they get down. And I'll be driving in my lavender-colored Jaguar with the hip-hop blaring, and they pulled me over for no reason. And I would be pissed off, you know? But never again. I’m here to set the record straight: I like racial profiling. I got new eyes! Racial profiling is a good thing! Officers, I support you. And I don't care if the dude is white, black, green, blue, whatever. If something doesn't look right, shake him down. Now, I'm not saying to beat his ass, or nothing like that ... but just shake him down! See what's happening.
You working at the airport, and someone looks suspicious? Shake him down! He got a long ZZ Top beard? Shake him down! You see a pasty-faced white dude with a "Jesus Saves" backpack wrapped in the Confederate flag? Shake him down? The dude got his head all wrapped up, and he ain't Erykah Badu? Shake him down! Hey! They probably ain't even guilty, but shake them down! They'll get over it. Look at me, I have! So, law enforcement officers, Tracy Morgan completely understands racial profiling. I support you. And remember: If a guy's got a little bit of weed in his car, and he ain't hurting nobody, don't make me throw it out.

Is it funny? Sure, thanks in no small part to Morgan's perfect delivery. But what's the joke here? That racial profiling is good? That turning a country wracked by paranoia into a panopticon for law enforcement is not just necessary but should indeed be enthusiastically supported? There's no real punchline; the comedy comes entirely from Morgan's persona. The monologue is a straightforward example of laughingly backing what would become a steady erosion of civil liberties in the name of national security.

The second 9/11-themed sketch would become one of the defining moments of the season, and for Ferrell's tenure on the show. The premise was simple: a dull, staid office meeting led by Scott as the boss is disrupted by Ferrell's wildly inappropriate but enthusiastically patriotic ensemble of flag-printed short-shorts and a USA belly shirt. (Years later, Scott would be grilled about this skit during an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers.)

The sketch, a solid entry in the "Will Ferrell's naked belly is comedy gold" canon, never expressly mentions the words "9/11" or "terrorist." But its enthusiastic display of patriotism, portrayed here as naive and strange but ultimately harmless, is uncomfortable in hindsight, now that partisan flag-waving has transformed from a show of pride to an implied threat.

Ferrell was cast as a (characteristically) lovable jingoistic oaf whose only transgression is that he allows his enthusiasm to overwhelm his sense of propriety. The underlying assumption here is that these displays of patriotism are not only expected, but should in fact be embraced. We are meant to understand that the patriotism here is Good, even if its execution is uncomfortable. As the sketch makes clear at the end:

Ferrell: I'm sorry if I offended anyone. I mean, you do all know that I'm way proud to be an American, right? You do know that I love this country more than absolutely anything? Well, I'm sorry you had to see my ass cheeks. And my nugget pouch. And my bulge. I guess what it all comes down to is that the angle of my dangle is inversely proportional to the heat of my meat. Right?
Boss [Seann William Scott]: What the hell are you talking about? Get out of here!
Ferrell: Okay, that last part was inappropriate, I’ll give you that. But just remember this: The U.S. of A. is the greatest country on the face of the Earth, and for that I will make no apologies!
Everyone [applauding]: U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Like Fink's criticism of the season premiere's cold open, there's no edge here beyond the basic comedic premise that it's funny when Will Ferrell shows his tummy. When Scott shouts "God bless America!" in the episode's closing moments, the sentiment — one that under other circumstances would have felt conspicuously corny, if not out of place entirely for an iconoclastic comedy show — seems perfectly benign.

By the third episode of the season, a whole month after Sept. 11, the news cycle's inevitable churn brought new opportunities to address current events. The impending ground force invasion of Afghanistan meant the Oct. 13 show could take a more caustic approach to Vice President Dick Cheney during the cold open, a thematic "we're coming to get you" rehash of Ferrell's Bush impression from the week prior. The spate of still not-conclusively solved anthrax attacks provided fodder for the opening monologue from host Drew Barrymore. And Weekend Update anchor Colin Quinn's "what the hell is going on" rant was mostly an excuse for Quinn's typical complaints about political correctness. ("This is the first politically correct war we've ever had. What is it called? 'Operation Regrettable Inevitability'? 'Operation Uncomfortable Necessity'?") Sure, Quinn's description of the coming war was more somber and less enthusiastic than earlier patriotic bromides — but it also portrayed the war in Afghanistan as inevitable, with nothing left to do about it but sit back and watch.

"They say that tragedy plus time equals comedy," Hammond told Rolling Stone for its oral history. "9/11 won't ever be funny, but it became, over time, possible to make fun of politicians again."

The assertion that 9/11 cannot and will not ever be funny strikes at the heart of what makes that fall 2001 season of Saturday Night Live, particularly its first three episodes, so bizarre. If the events of that day were so fundamentally traumatic as to nullify comedy entirely, then what was the purpose of airing new episodes of the show so soon after the attacks? Why make the show's writers attempt to address what had happened? Why give the mayor of New York City a punchline that explicitly greenlit being funny about 9/11?

That SNL did elicit some genuine laughs during that time should be thought of as a pyrrhic victory at best. They were earned not by seriously punching up, but by giving the audience permission to embrace the unquestioned patriotism that those in power would harness for war and profit in the years to come. In the short term, the show gave a measure of comfort to a legitimately scared and grieving nation — a sincerely impressive achievement that should not be diminished or dismissed. But it came at the expense of fulfilling comedy's deepest purpose: to question those in power, to highlight injustices, and to lay bare the hypocrisies that, left unchecked, are no laughing matter.