Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of September 11, Vulture reached out to 37 comedians to talk about their first time performing onstage after the attacks and how the tragedy reshaped comedy in the decades since. In the below extended excerpt from our conversation with Marc Maron — who was living in Queens, New York since 1993 at the time of the attacks — the comedian, podcaster, and actor reflects on his material in New York after 9/11, what it felt like to perform at the Comedy Cellar at the time, and how comedians’ varying responses to the tragedy both onstage and off evolved into the tribalism in comedy we see today.

I was living there. I was in Queens. I watched that second tower fall. I was on my roof.

The woman upstairs from me died in the fucking tower. Her whole family was upstairs, and they were surrounding the television because she had gone to work. And she died! I knew these people; I lived in the same building with them. I saw the old man every day, and the daughters, and she didn’t come home and she died that day. And the guy downstairs, he had signed up to work in recovery, so he was down there going through the rubble. He came back one day, and this is a macho guy who just broke down crying. There’s a lot of levels to this thing. There was no “too soon.” We were living in it.

I just remember we didn’t know when we were going to go back to performing, but I remember being ready to go back. We felt like it was sort of a duty or something. Everything was happening in this cloud of that toxic burning-metal smell and the growing proliferation of pictures on walls of people missing. People were wandering around like zombies. This trauma that happened to the city and to everybody there was tangible. Nobody really knew what to do, and I didn’t feel that we were scared of another attack as much as we were just shattered. Then people started flooding in to go look at the pile of smoking metal. It felt like an intrusion that so many people were flocking to a city that they may have judged before as enemy territory, in my book.

What I remember is the way [the Comedy Cellar] felt. Nobody was secure in their sense of reality, and people were clearly freaked the fuck out. It was like shock. The laughter was quick and weird. Clearly what we were doing wasn’t really a comfortable or effective show. It was just doing something, because at that point, Lower Manhattan was closed. It was constant police activity and excavation activity. People were sleepwalking in a state of profound shock, so that was your audience. And if you’re like me — who’s not going to be immediately jingoistic or patriotic in the classic sense, and is going to sort of explore things as a reactive liberal person — it was dicey.

I couldn’t not talk about it. There are comics that are like, “I just wanted to get people not thinking about it for a minute. I just wanted to try to give people relief.” I’m not the big relief comic; I’m not frequently asked to lighten things up. I don’t remember the jokes, per se, and I understood we were in a lot of pain, but I was of the ilk to sort of innately blame U.S. policy for this situation. I think that might’ve been, in retrospect, a little insensitive to a degree, but I wasn’t going to start hating Arabs that day. I lived a block down from Steinway and 30th Avenue and all the Arab coffee shops; it was tense over there, and it was scary in terms of the kind of reaction to Muslim people in the neighborhood.

I remember I made a joke — I wish I could remember it, but some guy stood up and was angry. He was like, “I’m a fucking Marine. You can’t say that,” and I’m like, “Look, I appreciate you defending my right to say these things.” I don’t think it was unfunny, I just think it was probably a little button-pushing in light of the fact that we were not even two weeks out of this thing.

So it was definitely tricky onstage for me, but I saw it as a challenge. I remember I did a joke about my manager calling me shortly after 9/11 and saying, “Man, it’s terrible. I bet you wish you were in L.A. now,” and I was like, “No, L.A.’s got earthquakes and shit. Here in New York, we may be the target of terrorism, but you’re the target of God.” I was like, “Arguably, God is the biggest terrorist of all.” That was one of those jokes where I couldn’t just leave it at God. But I don’t remember which button-pushing jokes got me into a standoff.

But the guy wasn’t mad at me; people were just mad. You felt that. What was more interesting was realizing the sort of hyper PTSD that was going on, and working at those spaces, nobody was relaxed. There’s a similar vibe coming back from the pandemic, where there’s just a fundamental instability in the room among the people. They’re nervous, it doesn’t feel right, and nothing is going to really make it better.

For me, comedy was a way of processing whatever my sense of truth was and my sense of righteous indignation. I saw comedy as a platform that you worked through things on. For me, the challenge was: How do we make this funny? How do we make this relevant through comedy? It’s sort of our duty to try to disarm this a bit and process it so people can move through their fear and anger to a degree. I didn’t feel like I was entertaining the troops; I felt like, We’ve got to process this collectively, and it’s going to go through me, the way I do it. I felt like it was my social responsibility to get to it. We were living in the sort of body-dust cloud of that event for months, so there was no “too soon.” That smell lasted for months, it seemed like, and you were just sort of like, Is that hole still burning half a mile away? They were pulling pieces of people out of there for a year. There was no way to not be in the shadow of it. There was a tension.

It was out of that tension where you really saw comics sort of sizing up. That’s where the Tough Crowd and back table at the Cellar really evolved into what it was and what it became — because of 9/11. There were definitely comics that were like, “Let’s kill all these fucking Muslims. Let’s lock them all up!” like immediately. And then there were a few liberal comics who were like, “Is that really the solution?” And then Manny [Dworman, former Comedy Cellar owner], who was already a sort of politically conservative Zionist guy, was still alive, so he was stoking the flames a bit.

Comics are comics — a bunch of gossipy high-school girls — but at that time, our hand, as a community in a lot of ways, was forced to take a stand politically. The sad lesson of it all was really that you could track what has become the tribalization of comedy back to that. There was definitely a point where you realized, Wow, you’re a lot more conservative than I am, or Wow, you might be a little bit racist, or Oh my God, I thought I knew you better. But none of that mattered before, because we didn’t necessarily know each other that well, other than we saw each other every day. But it was at that time, post-9/11, where lines were really drawn.

You directly get Tough Crowd out of 9/11. You look at Tough Crowd, and you look at the guys who were holding the line for a sort of conservative … It’s not even conservative, it’s “liberal” and “not liberal.” It was a different time; nothing was infused with this idea of white supremacy, but there was definitely a profound anti-Arab sentiment. It was very specific, and there was a very immediate distrust of all Muslims on behalf of some people in the community. I think that conversation started to evolve into these sides that I think we still see now, and in its nicer form evolved into Tough Crowd. I was on Tough Crowd a lot, not because Colin [Quinn] liked me particularly — I don’t really think he does — but there were just so few lefties that could speak in that way, that I became sort of a recurring character, to a degree.

It really becomes “This is not the time to be critical of U.S. policy,” or locking into “This is chickens-coming-home-to-roost” thinking: “This is the time that we have to drive some trucks into Queens and break up these mosques.” So that was where it was. There was no real middle; finding the middle happened over time. The take was, “There’s no good Arabs.”

Looking back on it, and moving through that as a city, I’m not that different a person. I ended up, in 2004, at Air America. I am not some sort of left-wing reactionary, and I feel like my comedy tries to straddle a line, but once you get labeled that, you get labeled that. I do think that standing up for what is the more humane, progressive point of view probably informed me somehow in my personal courage, but I don’t know what it did or didn’t do for my career. I never really thought in terms of a “career,” and I certainly didn’t have one for another 20 years.

I think the interesting narrative is where we are with “woke” and “anti-woke” and the tribalization of comedy. I think that there’s a direct line from 9/11 to that. If you’re going to fight, right now your war is against this idea of censorship or “wokeness.” “Cancel culture,” I think, is up for grabs in terms of figuring out where either side stands on that. It’s rife for understanding and criticism on some level, but there’s definitely lines drawn.

So what you’re seeing now is there’s an audience that has been built up around the current momentum of comedy that isn’t fundamentally a comedy audience. It’s more of a team loyalty thing, and they have their own audience. So what you’re seeing is that there’s an insulated crew of comics that are all about “Fuck you, pussies.” I can’t simplify it, but there are people that are going to be, as we move forward, unaffected by pushback, because they’ve got their people. So then what happens to the dialogue of stand-up that’s supposed to kind of straddle these two worlds and move through the middle to kind of balance out that thing? I don’t know.

It’s also so easily co-opted by right-wing politics. Whatever they think they’re doing — or if they think they’re non-political — they’re definitely carrying water for a kind of creepy and destructive momentum, and I think that what gets pushed back is the same thing that gets pushed back historically, which is the voice of the marginalized. So the more that proper show business diversifies out of necessity from righteous pushback — and also is willing to engage in unique voices to more fully represent what this country really is — then that is a bulwark against that at all times; it seeks a new status quo that will be the dominant cultural language, but how is it anything but sort of … I don’t want to label it in a lazy way. I’m wary to say “right-wing,” I’m wary to say “fascist,” but you’re moving through this sort of hyper-masculine, aggressive, false pursuit of freedom to say things that are clearly hurtful and dubious about people who can’t really culturally defend themselves with the same weight.

So what is that? I guess it’s sort of a bully situation. I’ve become convinced that the voices of the oppressed and the marginalized becoming more prominent to force the hand of apathetic people into a more empathetic position is the only way we’re going to save this fucking country. And it’s a fairly new realization, so I don’t know when comedy starts to speak to that. It’s just that the fury and the momentum of the proudly ill-informed is problematic.

The other thing you get is the birth of the conspiratorial explanation in a dramatic way for the first time post-JFK. I mean, the sort of “9/11 was an inside job” thing happened fairly quickly, and that’s another foundation of current misinformation and right-wing thinking. So that was all happening too.

A lot of comics are just going to say, “Yeah, I’m going to take it easy up there and just be funny,” but there are some people who do the heavy lifting. There’s not generally a lot of them at any given time. I mean, you’ve got to poke around. Something’s happened; it’s blasted a hole into the fabric of everything we understand and have grown to rely on. It’s destabilized the fucking country and the world, to a degree. So that’s a reality. How am I not going to try to manage that frequency?