"Late-Night Talk Shows Ponder Sept. 11 Tone"
Los Angeles Times
August 16, 2002
by Paul Brownfield


As television's news programs plan for their Sept. 11 anniversary programming with specials offering somber reflection and spiritual uplift, the late-night personalities who swim in the daily faux pas and comic excesses of news and entertainment have a less clear mandate.

So NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" will go ahead with original shows on Sept. 11, while David Letterman, currently on vacation, is mulling what, if anything, to do that night. Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," meanwhile, which needs free and unfettered access to news parody, will do normal shows on Sept. 9, 10 and 12 but not on Sept. 11.

"Late Night" executive producer Jeff Ross said of his New York-based program's plans: "We're not sure what we're doing yet. We obviously have to address the day."

Ross said doing a show on Sept. 11 was discussed but not hotly debated internally. "It wasn't anything more than it came up. I called the network, [and] they said they expect us to do a show."

NBC officials were unavailable to discuss the issue.

The challenge facing the comedians is not simply how to properly mark the day but also how to fit in with the programs that will precede their shows that night. The broadcast networks are assembling prime-time news specials designed to be in line with the expected mood of the day (news specials, including Fox's "The Day America Changed," and an all-star concert on NBC).

But what do you do on a late-night talk show, particularly a comedy-focused program, on a day when television is expected to provide saturation coverage of a nightmare that's still fresh in viewers' minds?

CBS approached Letterman about doing a show. When he balked, CBS suggested a re-airing of his emotional broadcast on Sept. 18, a week after the attacks, when "CBS Evening News" anchor Dan Rather choked up. At the time, Letterman, the first of the late-night hosts to return, was credited with laying the foundation for his competitors, all of whom followed suit with their own heartfelt "the show must go on" preambles.

Letterman indicated that he neither wanted to do an original show nor rerun the Sept. 18 broadcast, evidently concerned that he would appear to be grandstanding. On Thursday, however, word came that Letterman is still considering doing a show on Sept. 11, though no one from "Late Show With David Letterman," which is on hiatus, would comment. Letterman's decision would presumably also determine whether CBS' 12:35 a.m. "The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn," which is produced by Letterman's Worldwide Pants production company, works that day.

Meanwhile, whatever plans or concerns "The Tonight Show" has are unclear; no one from the show was available for comment. "The Tonight Show" used Arizona Sen. John McCain as its first post-Sept. 11 guest ("We will prevail. We will prevail," McCain proclaimed), and the show plans once again to turn to McCain as its unofficial crisis counselor. Leno, it is presumed, will do a monologue, though it is difficult to imagine a more awkward context for his mild populist gibes at the day's headlines.

"Saturday Night Live" doesn't have its season premiere until Oct. 5.

"All I know right now is that we're dreading the reliving of the feelings, dreading the anniversary, dreading having to work in a comedy-producing environment in that context again," said Madeleine Smithberg, "The Daily Show's" executive producer. The show's staff returns from a two-week vacation Sept. 9.

The Comedy Central series' slings and arrows at broadcast news pomposity have earned it critical and popular acclaim. Smithberg noted that "The Daily Show" faces a greater challenge than the late-night talk shows, given that so much of "The Daily Show" is predicated on lampooning the news.

"Your role as a human being supercedes your role as a satirist," she said. (The sentiment was echoed a year ago by "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, who, in an earnest post-Sept. 11 on-air speech, said: "There were no jobs available for a man in the fetal position under his desk crying, which I would have gladly taken. So I came back here.")

In the show's 11 p.m. time slot, Comedy Central will rerun a "Daily Show" special featuring its correspondents.

Booking guests for Sept. 11 presents its own set of challenges. "We have been--'besieged' is the wrong word--inundated would be more accurate, by media requests from both print and TV to be a part of their Sept. 11 coverage," said Stan Rosenfield, publicist for such name actors as Will Smith, Robert De Niro and George Clooney.

"Our clients just have kind of told me individually, and this is also my feeling ... , we don't care to be a part of it. This is about media coverage and not about the event."

"The Daily Show's" Smithberg agrees."We're going to be reliving it in such a way that newspapers can sell newspapers and networks can get ratings," Smithberg said. "The overall effect is that you become numb to something you should never become numb to."


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