Comedians and their fans have spent the last few days trying to reckon with Steve Rannazzisi’s admission that his many stories about surviving the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 were lies. The timing of this confession couldn’t have come at a worse time for the 37-year-old comic and actor. The seventh and final season of The League, on which he plays the put-upon family man Kevin McArthur, just kicked off on FXX. His Comedy Central special Breaking Dad is set to premiere this weekend. And he was going to be a fixture on television during the next six months of the NFL season with his many commercials for Buffalo Wild Wings.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that a comic has let his or her comments about 9/11 get them in trouble, nor will it be the last. Sure, most of the examples below aren’t quite on the level of the out and out fabrication that Rannazzisi has engaged in for the past several years, but they should provide some comfort to him that his fans and the comedy community will likely help him move on from this embarrassment.
Less than a week after the World Trade Center attacks, the nerves of the general public were frayed, raw and very sensitive as we tried to recover from the horrors that played out that day. So when Bill Maher, on his former talk show Politically Incorrect, said, “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building? Say what you want about it…not cowardly,” the already ruffled feathers of a reeling U.S. populace got even more ruffled. Though the host issued an apology, the show never really recovered and was canceled the following June. Maher obviously came out of it with a better deal, moving to HBO where there are no advertisers to appease nor censors to skirt around.
The mood in New York City in the weeks following 9/11 was a defiant one. Every event that went on felt like the attendees were thumbing their noses at anyone that dared think they could topple the metropolis. So you can imagine the response of the folks who attended the Friars’ Club roast of Hugh Hefner when Gilbert Gottfried joked, “I have to leave early tonight. I have to fly to L.A., but I couldn’t get a direct flight. I have to make a stop at the Empire State Building.” Even amid the raunch and insults tossed around like confetti, that was, for the audience, a step too far. As Gottfried told The Las Vegas Sun, “People were booing and gasping, and one guy yelled out, ‘Too soon!’” Pilloried though he was for the joke, the comic’s career stayed the course until he made a potentially “too soon” joke about the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, which cost him his job as the voice of the AFLAC duck.
For some comics, making light of tragedy is the only way to heal. That’s what Joan Rivers felt, anyway, when she featured a joke in her 2002 show Broke and Alone In London regarding the widows of the many firefighters who died on 9/11. As reported on IMDB, someone in attendance recalled, “She said that they got paid $5 million each, and how disappointed they’d be if they were told…that their husbands had been found alive.” Though she caught flak from the International Association of Fire Fighters for the joke, Rivers stuck to her guns and never apologized for it.
Upon returning to Studio 8H in New York to host SNL in 2014, the show that helped kick off his career, comedian and filmmaker Chris Rock decided to pull no punches in his opening monologue. After making some jokes about the attack at the Boston Marathon, he then started poking fun at the Freedom Tower, suggesting, “They should change the name…to the ‘Never Going In There Tower.’ Does this building duck?” Social media exploded for a while afterwards, raking Rock over the coals for his remarks before moving on to the next viral controversy.
Norm Macdonald really didn’t get in trouble for this joke, in part because it’s the most sanguine on this list. But mostly because he cut it from his video podcast before it was released (although he did unleash it online as a clip on YouTube). It says so much about how the wound of that awful day in 2001 has still not fully healed that a veteran comic like Macdonald would choose to edit it out lest he offend anyone. If tragedy plus time equals comedy, we still have a long way to go before we can make light of that terrible incident without fear of repercussion or fending off mobs of internet commenters.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.