The dozen comedians interviewed for this story said similar things about the weeks and months following the attacks on 9/11. None of them wondered whether comedy would come back, or remotely agreed with Vanity Fair magazine editor Graydon Carter's contention from the time: "It's the end of the age of irony."
New York comic Ophira Eisenberg said no one she knew in the profession was buying that idea. "Anyone saying comedy was dead wasn't working in comedy," she said.
Yet comedians, like many others, found themselves caught up in some soul-searching. What's the ultimate purpose of getting up onstage and amusing an audience, anyway? Ted Alexandro reviewed his act and cut jokes that he deemed trivial. Tom Shillue took several months off from doing stand-up so he'd have time enough to mourn.
And then, gradually, comedy came back. Late night hosts like David Letterman and Jon Stewart returned to air with a somber note before easing into what they'd always done: satirical bits and one-liners about the passing parade of absurdity that is part of American life.
Alexandro remembers going to Gotham Comedy Club in Manhattan and hearing the late Greg Giraldo joke about walking down the street after 9/11 and seeing a bachelorette party with rubber penises attached to their heads. Giraldo said mock-seriously that it was then he realized, "We're going to be OK. Life goes on."
Jeff Ross put a shirt over his nose on the weekend after 9/11 and walked through the swirling dust from Ground Zero from his apartment in the West Village to the Comedy Cellar on MacDougal Street, where he did a set for a handful of foreign tourists whose flights had been cancelled.
And then there was Gilbert Gottfried. He told WNYC that his goal was "to be the first one to do a bad taste joke about September 11th." He did — and how — at a taping for a Comedy Central Roast held less than a month after 9/11. The joke bombed. But then, amazingly, he told a joke that won back the audience so thoroughly that he's now given credit for being the first comedian after 9/11 to deliver a hugely cathartic laugh.