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CNN Live Event/Special

America's New War

Aired September 28, 2001 - 22:30   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: The new season of "Saturday Night Live" kicks off tomorrow night in Studio 8-H in Rockefeller Center, just as it has for the past 27 years. But this broadcast will be like no other.

"SNL," of course, is news-driven and it is also "Live from New York," where a phrase, that phrase takes on a painful irony.

The producers have said it will be one of the more difficult shows they've ever had to do. Like the rest of the comedy world, they are all struggling with the boundaries of taste. And some haven't come out of the struggle exactly unscathed.

More on the dilemma from CNN's Paul Vercammen.



DARRELL HAMMOND, ACTOR (as Al Gore): I would put it in what I call a lock box.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Governor Bush, your response?

WILL FERRELL, ACTOR (as George W. Bush): I don't know what that was all about.


PAUL VERCAMMEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When "Saturday Night Live" makes its fall debut, it's expected Will Ferrell's popular impression of President Bush and Darrell Hammond's version of former Vice President Al Gore will not take the stage.

FERRELL: As of right now, it's not really, it's not going to be appropriate to do any sort of political humor on the show right now, at least initially.

VERCAMMEN: And Ferrell and Hammond were to do their Bush and Gore imitations during the upcoming Emmy Awards telecast. That skit has been scrapped in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. DON MISCHER, EMMY AWARDS PRODUCER: There's no way it would have been right in any kind of way. I don't think anybody will be making fun of our leaders or our president or anything for a long, long time.

VERCAMMEN: Any dabbler in political humor, from sketch comedians to late-night talkers, is considering just what's funny and appropriate.


JON STEWART, HOST: Our show has changed, I don't doubt that. What it's become, I don't know.



DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST: Watching all of this I wasn't sure that I should be doing a television show, because for 20 years we've been in the city making fun of everything, making fun of the city.


BRYCE ZABEL, PRESIDENT, TV ACADEMY: It's going to be a judgment call that every single comedian makes and every single network makes with them.

VERCAMMEN: Just ask "Politically Incorrect's" Bill Maher.


BILL MAHER, HOST: We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly.


MAHER: Staying in the airplane when it hits the building. Say what you want about it, it's not cowardly. You're right.


VERCAMMEN: Maher's comment from September 17th prompted two sponsors and several ABC affiliates to abandon the show, and prompted a response from White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It's a terrible thing to say, and it's unfortunate, and that's why there was an earlier question about, has the president said anything to the people in his own party? The reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that. It never is.

VERCAMMEN: Maher declined to comment on Fleischer's statement. The comedian was contrite about his cowardice remarks a week ago on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." MAHER: The idea this week that I added somehow to this trauma just makes me feel awful, and I am miserably sorry about doing that. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart, because I love my country.

VERCAMMEN: Columnist Arianna Huffington was a guest when Maher fired his pot-shot heard round the world, or at least inside the media sphere. Huffington takes exception to the scathing criticism of Maher.

HUFFINGTON: It clearly shows how dangerous it is in a democracy when we are willing to stifle dissent and free expression, which after all are central values to what we are defending.

VERCAMMEN: Comedian and radio show host Harry Shearer says he won't joke about the actual attacks, but finds humor in media coverage and reaction to the tragedy.

HARRY SHEARER, COMEDIAN: Hollywood's not going to have a red carpet the Emmys. That'll make a difference. That makes a statement.

That's the sort of thing that I think lends itself to humor, but the event itself, no way.

VERCAMMEN (on camera): This seems to be an era when many jokes about the U.S. government, the military, and the attacks could be destined for the mass media's great repository of controversial thoughts and bad ideas, the cutting room floor.

Paul Vercammen, CNN, Los Angeles.


BROWN: Coming up in just a moment, more on when comedy gets serious. We'll talk with comedians Alexandria Wentworth in Los Angeles and Al Franken here in New York. We'll be right back.


BROWN: You'd think that when advertisers signed on to a show called "Politically Incorrect," they'd know what they were getting. But clearly the backlash against Bill Maher's show shows how the deep sensitively is running.

We're joined tonight by actress and comedian Alexandra Wentworth who, ironically, we were scheduled to meet with at 11:00 in the morning on September 11th, a meeting that didn't happen. And Al Franken, who elected himself president in the 1999 bestseller "Why Not Me?: The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency." It's nice to have you both here.

Alex, I have a feeling we want to laugh, we need to laugh, and we are a little bit afraid to laugh. We feel guilty if we laugh.

ALEXANDRA WENTWORTH, ACTRESS/COMEDIAN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that there is sort of two things going on. One is, we feel guilty if we laugh. But the other is we need that release, you know. It's also a healing process to laugh. I don't think that one can make any jokes about what we're going through right now, probably, ever, because I think that there are certain areas in our American life that you can't make fun of; cancer, AIDS, abortion, terrorism. There's just nothing funny about it.

But I think it's sort of good advice to put in a W.C. Fields movie or an old Nichols and May or something that kind of uplifts you a little bit so we're not sort of in post traumatic stress, sort of depressive state.

BROWN: Al, you've been writing jokes, doing jokes, and literally, you were a kid -- have you ever experienced anything like this? Is there anything -- is Oklahoma City -- anything comparable?

AL FRANKEN, POLITICAL SATIRIST: No. No, I can't think of anything like this, and there have been, Letterman went on, the Monday after I guess, and I thought did an incredibly tasteful job, and is leading the way, you know. We're talking about going down ground zero, and I was there, on the 19th, and I talked to some firefighters, and one of the firefighters came up to me and said, "When is late- night comedy going to be funny again?" And this was a guy who had earned the right to ask that things be funny again.

So, I think it -- we don't -- W.C. Fields is great, but I think people have to do things now, and we have to feel our way, and find the way to do it.

BROWN: Is the whole notion of political satire -- it's not dead, but is it just something we have to put away for awhile?

FRANKEN: I think Harry was right, Harry Shearer, in that piece you saw, which is that you can't be do anything about the event. You certainly cannot do anything that in any way does not respect the people who were killed and their families, and anything like that.

But you -- but I think that we have to start looking at other things around this thing, and being able to talk about them, in a way that is honest, and yes funny.

BROWN: There was a moment, Alex, the other day. The president was at the CIA, and he was speaking off the cuff, and as he sometimes does, he mangled the language a little bit. He said they oughtn't misunderestimate this or misunderestimate that. And in any other time, it seems to me, the jokes would have been made. Is he off- limits now for a long time to come?

WENTWORTH: I think so. I mean, I think, because right now he is our leader, we're going through a really horrible time. And so, you know, to make fun of the president is to, you know, ultimately make the American public feel unsteady.

I also think that if there is, like, political humor to be had right now, you've got to kind of either -- like Al said, you kind of focus on the perimeter, you know, the Emmys, or, I'm sure people are going to be making Muslim jokes, I mean, I already got one on the Internet that said, you know, let's tell the Taliban that we're going to take all their women and send them to college.

So -- and I also think, you know, we may go back to Gary Condit for a while or we may try to find sort of smaller news stories, because I think that the president and what our country is going through right now should be, kind of, preserved.

BROWN: Let's talk about Bill Maher for a second. The guy is in danger of losing a show.

FRANKEN: I really take issue with the people who have come down on him as hard -- first of all, he was not being funny at the time. And secondly, he was making a point. I think he put it wrong -- and listen, I've done USO shows in -- I've done Aviano Air Force Base, the same guys who shot those cruise missiles, and they are the bravest guys.

I think -- and I'd kind of like to make a collateral point, which is that we were dropping bombs in Kosovo, which, by the way, was an action to help Muslims, Albanian Muslims, ironically, and we were dropping bombs from 30,000 feet, because, basically, Americans would not accept casualties.

And these pilots, believe me, would have rather gone lower. And we were, we were killing innocent people because -- and we were not trying to -- because we could not accept those kind of casualties.

Those firemen -- when I went down to ground zero, I was talking to them. Not only did they run in to these towers while they were burning, after the South Tower fell, they ran into the North Tower: after the first tower fell. And that was to save civilians. And I think Americans accept now that we may have to have some casualties. And we may accept casualties to save innocent civilians, the same way these brave firemen were.

So I think that the point that the Bill was making was actually a valid point and I don't -- and he put it wrong, but I don't think that we can afford to squash people making, actually trying to help our president. We got to get behind our president. Whatever he decides to do, I think we have to get behind.

But in the meantime, to help our president, I think we have to be willing to engage in honest dialogue.

BROWN: Alex, let me give you last word. In all sense, humor and others, life has to get back to normal in some way. Are you able to see that in your own life? Are you able to work as you did before, live as you did before?

WENTWORTH: No. I mean, honestly, no. I mean, I'm sitting here in front of the camera, and my impetus is also to try to find something funny to say, try to make a joke, and you know, I'm dry as a bone. There is no comedy here whatsoever. And you know, I think that -- I think that there is a little bit of guilt about mourning right now. But you know, I'd be lying to you if I didn't have the need to want to, you know, go home later and pop in "Manhattan" or "Annie Hall" and eat some ice cream and have vodka, just because I need that release.

I also think it is almost like, if you have been -- if you're somebody whose been depressed for a while, or been through lot of stress, and you are at a party, and somebody says something mildly amusing and you start hysterically laughing like a crazy person, it's that kind of release I still -- I think people want.

BROWN: I couldn't agree with you more. Thanks for joining us tonight.

WENTWORTH: Thank you.

BROWN: Both of you. It was nice to see you again.

When we come back, some of the bravest people you have ever met in your life. Many fewer of them than there used to be, and they are trying to put their brothers to rest, the right way. We are right back.


BROWN: There is something about this story, this tragedy, that for us at least has distorted time. We've lived with this horror for less than three weeks, and because we've lived with nothing else, perhaps, it feels much, much longer.

Just take one week, last Sunday to today, and look at all the pictures that define it.



OPRAH WINFREY, TALK SHOW HOST: We are here today to be strengthened by the light of their lives.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All of the victims of this tragedy were innocent. All of them were heroes.

JOHN ASHCROFT, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Terrorism is a clear and present danger to Americans today.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And make no mistake about it. This is good, versus evil. These are evildoers. They have no justification for their actions.

TONY BLAIR, PRIME MINISTER OF GREAT BRITAIN: Our fight is with that regime, not with the people of Afghanistan.

KOFI ANNAN, U.N. SECRETARY-GENERAL: I am today launching an alert to donors which is intended to cover the projected needs of up to 7.5 million Afghan civilians over the next six months.


BUSH: My administration is confident. Tomorrow nine Cabinet members will board U.S. airlines to fly around our country to do their jobs.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot of it fell straight down, just, pancake effect, we call it. As you can watch the videos of it, it just started over-loading each floor and as it got to the bottom, it appears to me that it just went in numerous directions.

MAYOR RUDY GIULIANI (R), NEW YORK: If you know that your husband, or father or relative was working there, then you can make the choice and it is your choice, to apply for a death certificate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have two boys and a girl, and my youngest was my girl, and she is gone.



BROWN: One week. When the final numbers are in, the number of deaths in this attack will be over 6,000. More than 6,000 grieving families, 6,000 funerals. More than 300 of those funerals will be from one family, the family called the New York Fire Department, more deaths than any one family can take.

CNN's Jason Bellini tonight, on a death in the family.



JASON BELLINI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Pipe and Drum Corp played the sound of farewell firefighters expect, but have heard far too often lately.

They might not climb the ladders as much as the younger guys do, but on this point, band leader Eddie Geraghey wants us to be clear.

EDDIE GERAGHEY, N.Y. FIRE DEPARTMENT: We're all firefighters. We do this in our spare time.

BELLINI: The firefighters funeral is more than a tradition. It's a promise firefighters keep to the fallen co-workers they call brothers.

JOE QUINN, N.Y. FIRE DEPARTMENT: And all those guys, and a lot of them were friends, and a lot of them about were brothers, and that's what you see here today, a lot of brothers.

GERAGHEY: We're just trying to do as many as we can, and do them with dignity. BELLINI: In this funeral for Captain James Amato, less than 20 band members play the farewell songs. It's a smaller number than normal. Normal is 60. There are just too many funerals.

GERAGHEY: We're just spread very, very thin.

QUINN: This week alone is about 18 or 20. The funerals that I've done so far, since this terrorist attack, you get numb. Just -- you can't even look at family. As many times as you do it, it could have been any one of us in a band. In fact, we did lose one in a band. One of our drummers is still missing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every day you wake up, and it is, doing it all over again, and you know, you have things going on at home that you have to take care of, too, kids and wives and still go to work, you know. So it's not fun.

BELLINI: Firefighter funerals, no matter how small or how large, are family affairs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Billy, it's good to see your men, huh? Good old story for you.

BELLINI: They're family reunions. One young firefighter is introduced to his father's old buddies. It's younger guys they're burying and younger guys they're worried about the most right now.

QUINN: They're the ones that's in trouble, because they don't know that take they're taking a beating in their head with this.

BELLINI: Tradition helps hold up camaraderie at times like this. A 40-year-old band member makes this observation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sure after this we'll see a lot of young guys, too, wanting to join.

BELLINI: Wanting to join the band and give a hero send to their brothers.

Jason Bellini, CNN, New York.


BROWN: We'll go to Broadway in just a moment.


BROWN: Finally for this hour, we take you to Times Square. We haven't seen much of Times Square these last two-and-a-half weeks.

This afternoon, all of Broadway came in their costumes, they came down to Times Square to sing a public service announcement. You'll actually be able to hear the director's cues from time to time. It was one of those little moments in the city, kind of a special moment in the city. The kind of moment the city and the rest of the country perhaps needs to see and listen to. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CROWD (singing): Start spreading the news, I'm leaving today. I want be a part of it, New York, New York. These vagabond shoes are longing to stray right through the very heart of it, New York, New York. I want to wake up in the city that doesn't sleep to find I'm king of the hill, top of the heap.

These little-town blues are melting away. We'll make a brand-new start of it in old New York. If we can make it there, we'll make it anywhere. It's up to you, New York, New York.


New York, New York. I want to wake up in the city that doesn't sleep to find I'm king of the hill, head of the list, cream of the crop, and the top of the heap.

These little-town blues are melting away. We'll make a brand-new start of it in old New York. If we can make it there, we'll make it anywhere. It's up to you, New York, New York.

BROWN: We all needed that. CNN's coverage of "America's New War" will continue after a short break.