What is the right way to deal with a tragedy like 9/11 when you’re doing a comedy show? When can you get back to business? How do you strike the right tone? These are the questions that Aaron Sorkin wrote about in last night’s “Studio 60″ and they’re also ones I faced back in 2001 with the Emmys.
As “Studio 60″ continues its fade-out, my TiVO grabbed last night’s episode which had, as a story-line, the flashback to the days right after 9/11. It dealt with the characters wondering just how to be funny in light of the tragedy and the reality that we would now be living in the shadow of terrorism.
As the chairman/CEO of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, I spent some time with Aaron Sorkin, following 9/11 — on panels, at other public events, at the Emmys. He was one of the people we talked to on October 7 (when we canceled the Emmys a second time) and, as I recall, he said it was unclear what his people felt but he thought a lot of his stars and producers were going to take a pass on attending. Since I thought “West Wing” was going to win several Emmys, that made a an impact. Later, Aaron and I were on several panels together, notably an Academy panel, “Hollywood Goes to War” and a Writers Guild of America panel about terrorism and entertainment. He’s one of the brightest guys I know, a terrific writer and always a very nice guy. Honestly, I’ve been waiting for him to write about this experience in some way. I certainly haven’t been able to avoid it.
Anyway, the day that Sorkin wrote about in last night’s episode, it pretty much came down to a decision by the Academy and CBS President Les Moonves to cancel the Emmys (twice!) in 2001. Sorkin, given his role as the executive producer of “West Wing” was a key player.
As I said, the flashback occurs on October 7, 2001 as the cast prepares to go to the Emmy awards only to realize that we are bombing Afghanistan and the show is likely to be canceled. That morning I was getting ready to go for a morning run to lose a little stress before appearing on the show when the phone rang. “Turn on your TV,” my friend said. Once I saw the news, I knew it was going to be a long day.
I may have missed this, but I think “Studio 60″ made it seem like this was the first cancellation when it was the second. The original Emmys were scheduled to air on September 16, 2001 — a date that became impossible the moment the towers were hit.
Anyway, on the day in question, Moonves and I (and others, of course) were busy canvassing the community to see if we should go ahead with the Emmys. We got a lot of ambivalence, but we made the decision to put the brakes on again because we really thought that as the day wore on more and more people like Sorkin would decide not to come. The next day I appeared on “Politically Incorrect” and got in an argument with Bill Mahrer about this. It was my contention that you shouldn’t “throw a party nobody wants to come to” and that if we went ahead and nobody showed up it could have terribly tarnished the Academy’s reputation. Mahrer argued that we should have just done it anyway, that we wussed out. Of course, this was the time that he was also in trouble with ABC for suggesting that the terrorists on the planes were acting in a less cowardly way than people who fire off cruise missiles.
Anyway, revisiting those memories in this dramatic format made last night both fun and nostalgic for me.
I’ll never forget how they handled the issue “Studio 60″ posited in real life. On “Saturday Night Live” they brought on Rudy Giuliani and asked him if it was okay to be funny again. He shrugged and said, “Why start now?” That is one of the world’s greatest and most memorable lines in comedy, rising from the ashes of tragedy.
By the way, that’s what has always made Aaron Sorkin’s work so wonderful. He manages to pull that balance between the two into everything he writes.