Though the joke eventually gained Mr. Gottfried respectability, he said, the initial reaction was negative. “First there was a gasp and a lot of angry grumbling,” he recalled. “Some people booed, moaned and hissed, and one guy yelled out, ‘Too soon!’ I thought that he meant that I hadn’t taken enough time between the set up and the punch line! Someone tweeted at me the other day and wrote: ‘You make me laugh when I don’t want to,’ and that’s what I’ve felt for years I have felt I’ve done.”
Mr. Gottfried, who recently lost a gig as the Aflac duck after unleashing a series of questionable tweets about the Japanese tsunami, said that he wouldn’t repeat the 9/11 joke for an audience, but not for the reasons one might expect. “Now it’s past the shock point, and I like it when it’s shocking,” he said. “I always wanted to know where the person is in a big office who measures the amount of time and says, ‘Now you can say this!’” he added. “I feel like a person who wears a little ribbon on their lapel, or whatever is the latest thing, is no more sensitive or caring than somebody who cracks jokes about it.”
Joan Rivers delivered a 9/11 joke the same evening (it was also cut from the broadcast). The terrorists are going to win, she said, “…they’re gonna win because they’re ugly and horrible and they can slam into a building and they get 72 virgins. What’s a Jewish guy going to get? A 50-year-old woman who still won’t swallow.”
Sarah Silverman deployed her signature brand of faux-naiveté, suggesting, “If American Airlines were smart, their slogan would be: ‘American Airlines first through the towers,’ because it is something in which they came first.” Louis C.K. opted to use the event to mock himself, theorizing, “You can figure out how bad a person you are by how soon after September 11th you masturbated. And for me it was between the two buildings going down. And you know, I had to do it. Otherwise they win.”
That night at the Comedy Cellar, with the fallen Trade Center still smouldering, Mr. Norton recalled, “A bunch of comics were hanging—myself, Patrice O’neal, Keith Robinson, Greg Giraldo, Chris Rock—and we started to talk to each other about thoughts we’d had about what we would have done if we were on one of the hijacked planes. We realized, like asses, that we all had these embarrassing fantasies of saving the day in that situation. So we went onstage and began talking about our individual fantasies, and the crowd loved it. They all related to it.”
Mr. Giraldo, who passed away this year, remembered the night fondly, turning it into a bit: “There wasn’t even electricity in some parts of the city, but we started doing shows because people seemed to want to come out; they seemed to want to laugh,” he would tell audiences, adding, “There were bachelorette parties, and I thought, Holy shit, I never thought that I would be proud to see a pack of drunken Jersey girls with condoms on their heads.
“I thought, Shit they are never going to be able to change the American way of life.”