With the 15th anniversary of September 11, 2001 here, many Americans are sorting through their minds and hearts. How have I changed from 15 years ago? What do I feel when I think of September 11, 2001? Where was I on that fateful day? Why am I still sad? Where can our country go from here?
Fifteen years ago on September 11, I was in college. I was getting out of a Tuesday morning class when I heard people talking about an airplane crash. As I walked back to my apartment, I heard more and more information. I walked by a truck and heard words on the radio, “World Trade Center… airplane… Pentagon… crash.” I thought to myself, this is serious. Minutes later I watched the towers come down. I felt utter loss and grief.
As many of us were anxious, worried, upset, and downtrodden, Saturday Night Live kicked off its 27th season. “Oh no” – I thought, how can we laugh at a time like this? Thousands dead, lives changed, and the future looks dark, how could we have any sense of joy? We Americans felt damaged. We were afraid.
As Americans were looking for normalcy in a time of chaos we grabbed for anything regular as flights were grounded and security changes started in schools. There was uncertainty. Slowly, American pastimes came back. Baseball started back. Football began too. Then, the institution that defined comedy for New York City was back on: Saturday Night Live.
On September 29, 2001, New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani began a cold open with dozens of first responders behind him who all had a 1,000 yard stare. They looked like they had been through hell, and they had. They walked from the World Trade Center site into the studio of 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza with heavy hearts and minds trying to deal with horror.
Giuliani gave a fantastic speech calling the first responders and those who died “heros”. Paul Simon sung a moving and somber, The Boxer.
After, the-man-behind-the-curtain, Lorne Michaels stood with Giuliani. Here’s where Saturday Night Live started to signal that something great was going to happen. The leader of comedy in New York City stood with the civil leader of New York City. This moment communicated, “We’re going to tell you something really important.” Giuliani said that New York City was open for business and that Saturday Night Live was one of New York’s great institutions. Giuliani pronounced that was the reason why the show had to gone on for New York and America. Lorne, in typical deadpan humor, asked Giuliani:
Can we be funny?
The crowd laughed nervously. I did as well. Could we could laugh? Could something, anything about 9/11 could be funny? Could Saturday Night Live pull off a comedy show after a punch to the American gut?
Giuliani deadpanned back:
Why start now?
The audience bursted into a cathartic laughter. I started to laugh and I realized what happened: That was the first joke after September 11 and it told everyone that things could be alright. After so many tears it was a welcome change of emotion. If we could laugh, we could feel something other than despair. If we could laugh, we could have hope. If we could have hope, we could have joy. If we could have joy, we could have a future other than images of smoke and of rubble. It looked like things were going to be alright. Saturday Night Live as a show went on and it was good. It was funny. It felt good to laugh. For an hour and a half we left our pain begin.
During that post-9/11 SNL show we would experienced a time that was not marked by death and suffering. Such a thing was a glimpse of light in a time of darkness. Things could be alight: We could pull ourselves out of our pain.
The Sunday after 9/11 people filled churches. People sought support. At each anniversary of September 11th people look to spiritual leaders for a word of encouragement and to be among people who want to remember. As a pastor, I can tell you that laughter is an important sign of health. When a family or congregation loses the ability to laugh it is a sign of deep dysfunction and pain. In the days following September 11, 2001 we needed to feel something other than pain. Saturday Night Live allowed us to laugh again. To laugh is to heal.
As a pastor, I look for ways to help people heal. Sometimes I’m able to point towards restoration and other times I feel inadequate to give healing in the face of someone’s personal suffering I have never known. Despite clergy’s best efforts, sometimes we must use overlooked and unexpected sources of hope, healing, and restoration.
Jesus did say in Luke 6:21, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” We wept and then after that first SNL of 2001, we laughed. God has given us laughter for healing and for us to know a healthy release of the tensions of life. After September 11, 2001 we needed a release that didn’t involve violence or vindication. Saturday Night Live provided that release. We were able to laugh. We were able to start healing.
Thank you Saturday Night Live for helping us to know that laughter can be an effective tool in times of despair, especially after September 11, 2001.