09/09/2011 08:56 am ET | Updated Nov 08, 2011

Letterman After 9/11: Seeking Normal

I was at home in Princeton, NJ on September 11, 2001. After spending most of the day watching TV coverage of the shocking devastation, I walked through town in the late afternoon as people left their offices, got into their cars, continued their lives. I marveled that there could be apparent normalcy, on that day or ever again. Daily life proceeds, even when the world changes and we are shaken to our cores.

For professional comedians the question of normalcy was connected directly to their jobs, and they must have wondered whether the mirth business would ever recover. On September 17, David Letterman, the New York City representative of television’s prime late-night slot, took the lead in answering that question.

His performance that night has been called “one of the purest, most honest and important moments in TV history.” Letterman was equipped, perhaps uniquely among his peers, to produce a deeply heartfelt event that ranged from anguish to wit, from tears to laughter, and to reestablish a nightly ritual without the comic artifice it usually depends on.

I was in the theater for the show. As an unabashed David Letterman fan, I had attended a dozen tapings. I knew that this one would be different, possibly historic, and I wanted a close-up view of how Dave handled the moment.

Before the taping I talked with a few members of the Late Show company on 53rd Street, by the theater’s side entrance where guests go in and staffers come out for breaks or to run errands. Biff Henderson (a stagehand who often appears on the show with his trademark headset), Alan Kalter (the red-haired announcer), Rupert Jee (unassuming star who owns a lunch deli on 53rd Street), and Alan Chez (trumpeter in the house band), all freely expressed a walking disbelief that they were actually planning to produce an entertainment show in a city shocked and raw from its greatest catastrophe.

I asked Biff Henderson what motivated Dave’s return to the air, and he said Mayor Giuliani personally requested that he get back on television to help the city, and the country, return to normal life. That wasn’t as incredible as it might sound, given Giuliani’s close relationship with the show in those days, as a frequent guest and supporter of the Late Show’s many exploits in the streets.

Like most live-produced TV shows, the Late Show aggressively controls and preps its audiences. In fact, the show’s reputation is extreme in this regard: the registration and line-up process for ticket holders takes hours, and every audience is lectured extensively in the lobby before entering the theater. (No whooping, among other directives.) Once inside, a jolly warm-up routine is performed by stand-up comedian Eddie Brill. Music then plays and audience pages dance in the aisles, exhorting the audience to clap rhythmically.

Artificial jubilance would have clashed grotesquely with reality on September 17. The lobby prep was gentle and brief. Once in our seats, Eddie Brill’s greeting was substantially toned down. He subsided and we waited quietly.

In normal times the Late Show’s pre-taping routine is highlighted by Dave’s entrance to the stage area one or two minutes before the show kicks off. He runs breakneck toward the audience, stopping just short of toppling into the orchestra seats. Handed a microphone, he bangs it against his shoe and a nearby camera, and then banters with the audience playfully, sometimes taking a question.

On this night Dave walked in gravely and addressed us with uncharacteristic trepidation. “We have no idea what we’re doing,” I recall him saying. He apologized in advance for the show, needlessly. He thanked us for venturing in, as if there hadn’t been crushing demand for tickets. I had never imagined this legendary entertainer so uncertain in public, so reluctant to perform, so clearly nervous.

Dave retreated to his desk to await a planned “cold opening” – no music or announcement. The 400-seat theater was silent as night.

What followed was probably the most unabashedly wounded and emotionally true seven minutes in the history of variety television. Dave’s voice was shaky. “If we are going to do shows, I just need to hear myself talk for a couple of minutes … forgive me if this is more for me than for people watching.”

The cathartic centerpiece of that night’s extraordinary monologue was a dramatic expression of incredulity: “The reason we were attacked, the reason these people were dead … as I understand it … another smaller group of people stole some airplanes and crashed them into buildings. And we’re told they were zealots fueled by religious fervor. Religious fervor. And if you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any God damn sense?”

The audience was still and rapt throughout. Only near the end did Dave break the taut atmosphere: “Thank God Regis [Philbin] is here, so we have something to make fun of.”

During the commercial break, Dave took off his glasses and brought tissues to his face. His producers circled closely around him.

The lead guest, Dan Rather, made ensuing headlines by crying outright during his interview panels – twice, in fact: Once when describing his visit to Ground Zero and again while reciting a stanza of “America the Beautiful.” But it was not the spectacle of a hardened newsman choking down tears that made the show remarkable, and Rather’s breakdown was certainly not the result of any Oprah-style inducement on Dave’s part. “Good Christ, you’re a human being,” Letterman assured Rather. Dave had abandoned his persona of polished host to speak emotionally with his audience, and that enabled Dan Rather to take a step sideways from his role as rock-solid news reporter. It was the allowance of feeling, not its manufacture, that made the show unforgettable throughout, and cathartic for its viewers.

Afterwards the crowd poured out to 53rd Street. Suddenly Regis appeared on a fire escape two stories up, near an American flag that had been draped across the building’s outer wall. “David Letterman is alive and well!” he yelled to the throng. “David Letterman is alive and well!”

Regis disappeared with a wave and the crowd dispersed to its various courses and tasks and appointments. Just like normal.