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Laughs during wartime...
After Sept. 11, stand-up comics didn't feel like telling jokes. But then a funny thing happened.

By Omar L. Gallaga

Published in the Austin American-Statesman
July 25, 2001

This is a story about comedy.

But it begins at the opposite end, in a swirling vortex of
near-infinite humorlessness, a place and time when
nothing and no one was funny.

It was a black morning, leading into a midnight blue week; a
wounded purple month followed.

You are a comedian. You make people laugh as a means
of survival, playing to nearly empty houses full of drunken
hecklers, touring constantly. What do you do on Sept. 12,
2001, when you're holding a live mike that suddenly feels
like an unmoored tether?

Matt Bearden, the comic voted Funniest Person in Austin in
a monthlong contest earlier this year, drove for a
one-night-only stand-up performance in Slidell, La., the day
after Sept. 11. "I called and asked if the show was on. It
was. I drove from here and it was nothing but talk radio, no
music. By the time I got there I was completely worked up."

Bearden had to take the stage without a warm-up -- the
emcee didn't show. He noticed two women and a man
sitting in the anemic crowd of about 10. They were laughing
a lot. "I said to them, `You seem to be taking the news really
well.' They asked me what I was talking about."

The three hadn't heard about the terrorist attacks on New
York City and the Pentagon. Later that night, the club was
shut down by vice cops for operating without a license and
serving underage drinkers.

That week, Bearden had a few more performances on his
schedule. It didn't get much better.


Pity the lesser-known comics pursuing a paycheck. While
TV stalwarts David Letterman and Jay Leno took a break
until the country's mood had settled after Sept. 11, touring
comics took a huge hit. Thanks to the airline lockdown, they
couldn't fly to their gigs, and when they did get to their
destinations, usually by driving, they found themselves
trying to figure out how soon was too soon to talk about it.

Margie Coyle, who books many of the 150-plus acts Austin's
Capitol City Comedy Club hosts every year, says she
winced every time a local comic tried to do a joke about
terrorism the week of Sept. 11. "Some jokes can be
offensive just mentioning it the wrong way," she says. The
club closed on Sept. 11, but was back on Sept. 12 with
touring comic Eddie Gossling.

"Eddie was not happy at all," Coyle says. "It was a
Wednesday crowd the day after the bombings; how fun can
that be? He didn't want to do it. But he's a professional and
he did it. It was one of his worst shows."

For the next few weeks, Cap City, Austin's biggest comedy
club, had flat audiences. But, eventually, people were ready
to get away from the constant barrage of TV news and grim

"The show goes on," Coyle says. "You can't say we can't
laugh anymore or we can't make jokes. You just have to be
sensitive to the issue. Of the professional comics, I haven't
heard anybody out of line saying things that shouldn't be

As the weeks passed, Leno and Letterman went back on
the air, with more heartfelt deliveries (at first), and comedy
began to make a comeback. By February, semi-retired
comics including Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld and
Janeane Garofalo suddenly emerged for full-blown national
tours with stops in Austin, and Cap City was seeing steady
increases in its audiences.

Comedians, both local and touring, had a whole new set of
national psychoses to draw from and crowds were willing to
pay for the privilege of laughing again.


Megan Mooney didn't make it onstage on Sept. 11, or
anytime that week. In fact, the morning of the attacks, she
was in flight to Wash- ington, D.C.

"We landed about 9:20 in Baltimore," she says. "We were
the last plane to land. There were military planes in the sky.
At the airport, there was nobody there. They hadn't said
anything about it on the flight."

Mooney, an Austin-based comic at the time, got into a car
with a cousin and listened in horror to the news reports on
NPR. "We had no visual concept," Mooney says from her
home in New York, where she moved in February. "What we
were hearing sounded like the entire country was being

A week later, Mooney was doing stand-up comedy in an
Indianapolis club. Letterman and Leno still weren't on the
air, and for comics, it was a deep dive into a shallow pool
trying to figure out what audiences would respond to. "You
felt bad not acknowledging it," Mooney said. "At the same
time, people wanted to get out of their houses; everything
was acknowledging it."

Mooney's act focuses more on relationships and family than
politics; she didn't end up talking much about Sept. 11. But
the proximity of the event didn't stop others: "Some of the
comics I worked with tried to make a joke about it. It was
pretty horrifying. To casually laugh it off a week after it
happened was pretty inappropriate."

Living and performing in New York only makes it tougher,
she says. "You're bombarded with 9/11 stuff every day. I feel
like people can't get away with it here. If I'm on stage and
somebody lost someone in their family, they can come to a
comedy show and not have to relive that pain every time
someone talks about it."

Bearden and Coyle say they noticed comics tailoring their
acts, softening pre-9/11 material that talked harshly of
police and the military. Sometimes, delivering a joke about
the touchier subjects simply came down to confidence.

"Some comics have enough skill to know when and how to
do that," Bearden said. "How funny your joke is is how soon
you can do it."


Mooney says many comics, and artists in general, felt the
need to put aside their work and spend time with family after
Sept. 11. But the life of a touring comic is on the road, and
eventually it was time to get back to work. "You realize that's
what you do for a living. You want to bring a little bit of
laughter to people," she said.

Comics like Gossling, Mooney and Bearden weren't the only
ones hitting the road. Within months, many A-list comics
came out of semi-retirement to put on full-scale national

In Austin alone, Williams, Seinfeld, Bill Cosby, Garofalo,
David Cross, Jeff Foxworthy and Bill Engvall and Margaret
Cho all performed this year, many of them hitting terrorism

In the case of Williams and Seinfeld, at least, interviews
suggest they hit the road after long hiatuses to make the
country laugh and to get a bead on an instantly changed
culture. Williams said he was inspired to hit the road by a
performance at the Mark Twain Awards weeks after the
terrorist attacks. "Most of us had been walking around in a
state of shock for about a month or six weeks. . . seeing
people laugh and start talking more freely again may have
been the trigger that made me think, 'It's time to go out there
again,' " Williams told Newsday.

Williams recycled much of his humor about the Middle East
(with some fresh wordplay on the juicy target of Afghanistan
customs), but the manic comedian clicked with a Bass
Concert Hall audience that had shelled out upward of $100
per ticket to see more than his usual babble of potty-mouth

Williams' knack for information overload wasn't so hard to
keep up with for audience members who'd spent the past
six months growing accustomed to 24-hour cable news
accompanied by an ever-present "crawl."

Seinfeld, on the other hand, was the antidote for such
velocity -- his nuanced show, also a high-priced ticket at
Bass, made a passing reference to John Walker Lindh, but
his material about marriage, raising children and getting
older was a comfort stew even the Soup Nazi would have

Some of the younger well-known comics, however, went on
the attack. Cross and Garofalo did extended sets ripping
into George W. Bush and the government's handling of
terrorist warnings, and the younger audiences responded

Cross, who lives in New York, told an audience at La Zona
Rosa about sightings near ground zero, including one
overenthusiastic in-line skater who refused to let the
terrorists win. Then he ranted about the government's
color-coded terrorism warning system and served up
particular rancor for U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft;
Cross gleefully pointed out that Ashcroft once lost a Senate
re-election bid to a dead candidate. The response?
Black-clad hipsters egged on the comedian to perform a
longer-than-usual set.

Garofalo compared her viewings of Bush's press
conferences to a nervous mother watching her son
delivering difficult lines in a school play, the first of many
jabs at the president. She punctured the myth that being
skeptical about the government was unpatriotic and
bemoaned the ease with which the country had settled back
into its fascination with celebrities like Britney Spears.

Garofalo, who in past shows (even her televised one) has
not always seemed at ease in her own comedic skin, knew
she had some strong ammunition, and at the Paramount
Theatre, she came across as a confident straight-talker in a
world of deluded talking heads. Her political comedy drew
laughs as big as those reserved for her diatribes on boy
bands and body image.

Two other acts, Sandra Bernhard and Carrot Top, were
scheduled to hit Austin this spring, but canceled because of
sluggish ticket sales. Bernhard had earned raves for her
music/comedy show, "Hero Worship," which sends up what
she considers pop culture's exploitation of the tragedy.

George Lopez, who will perform his stand-up act Friday
night at the Paramount, did a show Sept. 15 in Fresno, Calif.
The star of "The George Lopez Show" called it one of his
most difficult shows. "I wanted to cancel it. It was eerie in
the sense that it was on everybody's mind. There were still
people that were unaccounted for," he says.

"It was hard. I didn't address it, other than the very visible
presence of American flags and service people and
donations to the fund. I didn't want to bring that up -- people
were trying to get away for a couple of hours."

Audiences for touring acts have been ready to respond --
except for the canceled shows, all of the major stand-up
acts have attracted huge audi-

ences, with many of the shows at the Paramount Theatre
and Bass Concert Hall selling out.


The mood now? Austin, local comics agree, has always
had a strong comedy scene that has cultivated young talent.
But if anything, grim news has only given comics more to
talk about.

This year's Funniest Person in Austin contest, featuring
nearly 60 comics, attracted about 1,600 audience members
over five nights. Some of the material at the contest focused
on airport security, anthrax and the war in Afghanistan.

Although Austin lost its upstart Bad Dog Comedy Theatre
last year, Cap City continues to attract strong touring acts
and venues like the Velveeta Room and The Hideout host
up-and-coming comics and improvisation and sketch
comedy acts.

The comics continue doing what they do -- they sleep in bad
motels on the road, write jokes on napkins and come back
to Austin to tell about their travels. Sometimes a shot of
fame hits all at once. This month, Austin stalwart Martha
Kelly, 2000's Funniest Person in Austin, won a car in a
Comedy Central-hosted comedy showdown and appeared
on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." Just a few months ago,
she could be seen battling drunken sorority-bred hecklers
at a late-night Velveeta Room show.

If anything, Sept. 11 revitalized comedy on a national level.
"Something told these people to get out and make America
laugh again," Margie Coyle says, noting that the number of
comedy clubs nationally is going up, always a good
barometer of the country's need to laugh.

Bearden, who has performed since 1996, wants to do
smart, thoughtful comedy (he decries the number of options
for Austin entertainment; most hipsters would rather hit a
bar or nightclub than an open-mike comedy night), but
recognizes that being a road-touring comic is his job.

The day he won the Funniest Person in Austin contest, the
bulk of his $750 prize went to his overdue electric bill. The
rest? It paid off his phone bill.

Laughter does go on, long after the ring of tragedy has
faded. And those who provide it come back, with even more
on their minds.

In the end, it's a job, a necessary one at that.

"Those A-listers are in a comfy position. They can choose if
they want to be on the road," Bearden says. "I have to be on
the road. Austin Energy demands it."


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