Rescue 9/11

This year, a handful of shows provided the healing power of laughter

Surely, there were a dozen or a hundred or a thousand defining TV moments this year, but the one I keep coming back to aired just a few weeks ago on Saturday Night Live, another show galvanized in recent months. (As has often been said, never did the phrase, "Live from New York...it's Saturday Night!" sound as sweet as it did when uttered by Rudy Giuliani on September 29, as the New York City mayor stood on the SNLstage surrounded by two dozen NYC cops and firemen.) On December 15--almost three months after Lorne Michaels asked Giuliani if it was OK to be funny, to which the mayor responded, "Why start now?"--SNLaired during its "TV Funhouse" segment a cartoon by Robert Smigel that eloquently encapsulated our post-September 11 hangover: our frustration with our inability to do something, our worry over how we're supposed to act now, our disgust with celebrities who whine about feeling helpless and our desire to get back to normal without forgetting what happened.

At first, it looked like a brilliant homage to such Rankin-Bass Christmas cartoons as Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeerand Frosty the Snowman, a merciless parody cobbled together using old, familiar images and new, dubbed-over dialogue. But it was something more. Standing in his familiar spot was Sam the Snowman, the Rudolphnarrator Burl Ives voiced in 1964; he even sounded like Ives, his voice full of cranky good cheer. Sam started telling the stale, familiar story of the snowstorm, the North Pole, the Abominable Snowman, Christmas Town. But his good will suddenly, instantly turned into self-righteous rage. "We're still in Afghanistan, the country's under siege, we're getting warnings every week," he groused. "Come on, folks, you watch CNN. I'm holding three months of Cipro up my butt hole. And I'm supposed to pick up a freakin' banjo and sing? Screw it. I can't do this."

Sam--"The Narrator That Ruined Christmas," per the cartoon's title--then took a little boy and girl and Rudolph to Manhattan and forced them to stare at the smoldering hole that was once the World Trade Center. ("I don't like Ground Zero," whined the reindeer.) Sam was unshaken, insisting it was his responsibility "as someone in the public eye" to show up and let his famous face shine its healing light on the workers. But Sam was unwelcome; Jerry Stiller and Santa were passed through the barrier instead. "It's not about you, douche bag," Santa told Sam. "Don't be so self-imposing. Don't you see? You showbiz types are just trying to shift the focus away from the crisis and onto yourselves. You're an entertainer. It's a simple job, OK? Do a dance, show us your boobs and make us happy, monkey."

Smigel, who writes all the "TV Funhouse" cartoons, says "The Narrator That Ruined Christmas" was the idea over which he agonized the most during his career, which includes such creations as "The Ambiguously Gay Duo" and Triumph, The Insult Comic Dog for Late Night with Conan O'Brien. He fretted over the subject matter: "the delicate subject of celebrity sanctimony in the aftermath of this horrible event," Smigel wrote me in an e-mail last week, "some of which I saw from my building's rooftop." He passed the sketch around to his friends, including O'Brien, writer Louis C.K., The Daily Show's Stephen Colbert and longtime Late Nightwriter Michael Gordon, who contributed the bit's ending that has Tom Brokaw interrupting the cartoon with breaking news of an FBI-issued 45-minute warning during which citizens were warned "to panic and not to enjoy themselves." They all added a few jokes, earning a co-writing credit.

"After a few weeks, it felt my role was to give people a cathartic laugh," Smigel says, and "any voices insisting on diverting from that role, like the Emmys dressing down, frustrated me." With SNLhead writer and Weekend Updateco-anchor Tina Fey, he wrote an Emmy sketch that was ditched. Also discarded was a cartoon in which celebrities crowd a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving and wind up fighting with each other when told some should come back on another, less visible day. It featured a Ground Zero reference that felt "too raw," Smigel says.

"Then I had the narrator/snowman idea, and I think what made it work best was that I wasn't parodying a real sanctimonious person, but someone who could symbolize them," he says. "Like I said, it's a delicate subject, especially because I believe that many of these people likely had the best of intentions." Almost everything he's penned since September 11 has dealt with the attacks, including a George W. Bush-Al Gore sketch; a Triumph bit for Late Nightin which the dog tries, in vain, to be a "nice New Yorker"; and a forthcoming "X-Presidents" cartoon for SNL.

"It's been a very strange few months," Smigel says. "For me, it's been very hard to be funny about everyday life."

And when the man who invented the phrase "For me to poopon" finds it hard to be funny, maybe everything haschanged after all.

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