Documentary Review: ‘Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11’

Review by James Lindorf

Twenty years ago, 21 men changed the world. One man in a compound in Afghanistan, another in the oval office, and 19 others spread across four planes bound for the west coast. In the hours and days following the horrific events, the people of the United States and especially New York City searched for a way to process their grief, a way to cope, and a way to move forward. For many, it seemed incomprehensible to laugh in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, forcing comedians to walk a tightrope of appropriate humor in the turbulent days, weeks, and years that followed. It was a tumultuous time when a misstep could lead to being banned from a club, if not outright career destruction and death threats. Even now, some people say the topic is off-limits, and it’s “Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11.” After a premiere at the Dances With Films Festival Screening on September 11 at Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theater, this new documentary from directors Nick Scown and Julie Seabaugh is available on the Vice TV YouTube channel.

There are plenty of sayings about comedy, such as laughter is the best medicine, humor comes from a dark place, and the one used in this film, tragedy + time = comedy. The fact that there are multiple well-known sayings highlights the importance of humor in our society. Comedians frequently talk about using humor to help them cope. Still, after 9/11, they found themself in the unique place of needing to manage their feelings and being uncertain if the world would allow them to use their usual methods. This impacted everyone from stand-up comedians, late-night hosts, Saturday Night Live cast members, staffers at The Onion, to even Broadway performers.

Attending a live comedic performance has many benefits. First of all, is that laughing makes you feel good. Being a part of the audience and laughing together makes you feel connected to a group of strangers, letting you share the joy but also sharing the collective pain. It locks you into a moment in time away from the news, away from the fear, anger, and guilt of the hopefully once-in-a-lifetime event. The film’s standout element is showing us the internal battle entertainers like Lewis Black, Cedric the Entertainer, David Cross, Dean Edwards, Janeane Garofalo, Maz Jobrani, and legends like Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane had to wage about returning to work and whether or not to address the topic.

They each go about it differently but with the best of intentions well, except for Bill Maher, who may have deserved to be fired. Some chose to tackle the subject head-on when they found an opening; others went for pure escapism, while a few others turned political. They took to the stage protesting against our response to the attacks from both the government and the citizens. Comedians of Middle Eastern descent talk about the danger they felt coming from outside and within the country. Sharing the lengths they, their friends, and their families went to protect themselves. It is never too soon or too late for an honest discussion of any topic, no matter how painful or awkward it may be. To emphasize this, “Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11” picks up immediately after the event and continues to cover the changing social and comedic landscape through July of 2019. Scown and Seabaugh’s new documentary proves that while you can’t please everyone, there is no such thing as too soon; it is all about the approach. “Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11” lags a bit in the middle, but it is nearly impossible to burn through the goodwill it builds up early on and earns a 4 out of 5.

Genre: Comedy, Documentary
Original Language: English
Director: Nick Scown, Julie Seabaugh
Producer: Tammy Chu, Ben Heins, Scott Recchia, Benjamin Stephen
Runtime: 1h 28m

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