On Sept. 11, 2001, NBC pre-empted “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” where I worked as a producer. It wasn’t a tough decision. Timing is everything in comedy, and that day was not a time for jokes.
But when was the right time? A day later, a week, a month? We felt helpless. How could we - a comedy and variety show - possibly be relevant when people were in a state of shock following the senseless terrorist attacks and the nation essentially was at war with an enemy we didn’t really understand?
Later that week, Mr. Leno decided to make a rare phone call to Johnny Carson, his iconic, 30-year predecessor, to seek his advice. Mr. Carson, a very private Democrat, suggested that Mr. Leno hold off on jokes about the Republican president.
Mr. Carson told him that when the country has just gone to war, “you don’t make fun of the king. You make fun of the enemy.” He assured Mr. Leno that he would, no doubt, be doing jokes about the king again in a few months. Mr. Leno shared that conversation with me and other staffers. He was visibly moved and took it to heart.
A few days after Sept. 11, Joe M. Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, called me with a message from President Bush, urging Mr. Leno to help the country get back to normal by putting “The Tonight Show” back on the air. New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s office made a similar call.
We scheduled our first post-Sept. 11 show for Sept. 18, one week after the attacks. Mr. Leno and the producers talked about possible guests. Mr. Giuliani was our first choice, and I put out an invitation to him. He declined, which was no surprise. He was too busy with his day job to come out to Burbank, Calif.
After many hours of discussions, we decided to offer the spot to Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, a longtime friend of the show and a national war hero. I made the official call, but Mr. Leno also talked to Mr. McCain, who accepted our invitation.
Our show on Sept. 18 was unique. There was no familiar music theme, just a somber introduction by then-announcer Edd Hall. When Mr. Leno walked out, he went straight to the desk, not the monologue mark, because there were no jokes. He was wearing an American-flag lapel pin for the first time, which he continues to wear to this day.
Mr. Leno said our prayers were with the families of the victims and those who had died trying to save them. He referred to the fallen firefighters, police and the Americans who had fought with the terrorists to prevent United Airlines Flight 93 from crashing into their target as “the greatest people of our generation.”
Then he told a story about being a 12-year-old Boy Scout, admitting he was not a very good one because his dyslexia made it difficult for him to accomplish tasks such as tying knots. So his scoutmaster, a wise and compassionate man, designated him as the troop’s “cheer master.” It would be his job to tell jokes to keep the guys’ spirits up.
Mr. Leno said he was aware at the time that this was not the most important job in the troop, but it was something he could do to contribute to its welfare. And that’s how he felt about going back on the air. He knew he wasn’t out there shoveling debris at ground zero, but at least he would be bringing a little cheer into people’s lives.
Mr. McCain eloquently told the nation what it needed to hear. He called America the greatest nation on earth, a “beacon of hope to everybody throughout the world,” including Muslims. He described the terrorists as educated and in their 40s, not young and impoverished, as many commentators had wrongly led people to believe.
Most viewers knew Osama bin Laden was the terrorist most responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, but not much more. Mr. McCain explained bin Laden’s background and motives, describing him as a wealthy Saudi Arabian who had fought against the Russians in the Afghan War.
But then bin Laden had a falling out with his own country and turned against America after our troops, whom he considered to be infidels, had been stationed on Saudi soil during the Gulf War. Mr. McCain showed a calm resolve as he assured viewers we would get bin Laden: “God may have mercy on terrorists, but we will not.”
Then Crosby, Stills and Nash performed some beautiful patriotic songs, including “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”