In his first broadcast following the events of September 11th, a serious Jay Leno told his audience that he considered his own job as an entertainer utterly unimportant compared the work of the policemen, firefighters and rescuers who were still laboring to find survivors in the rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The networks and many local stations had just begun to return to their regular schedules after many days of nonstop, noncommercial news coverage of the aftermath of the terrorist attacks—a period during which they willingly sacrificed hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenue. In Hollywood, the studios shelved several films scheduled for release, reconsidered others already in production, and pondered the impact of the nation’s sudden cultural shift on future projects—and profits.
Will the September 11 attack have a negative impact on entertainment, and on the production and postproduction communities that serve it?
The answer is no. Naturally, everything stood still in the immediate aftermath of the events, and the shock has still not subsided. But TV entertainment soon returned, multiplexes filled up again, and even New York’s Broadway recovered its audiences.
In bad times and in good times, people want entertainment. Arguably, Hollywood’s greatest year was 1939 (The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), a time not unlike today, when people anxiously await a protracted war against a feared enemy. And after that earlier war broke out, the entertainment machine churned out film after film, some escapist and some patriotic, against the background of constant military activity and casualties.
Leno was wrong. His job is vital. Entertainers may not save lives, but they raise morale. It’s a tradition in this country that runs from vaudevillian George M. Cohan to Bob Hope and all the way to, yes, Leno and Letterman.
In the September 11 attacks many people lost loved ones. More lost their sense of security. But the most widespread loss on that day was our laughter. In times like this, entertainment is not mere escape; it’s a way to recharge our batteries and prepare ourselves to deal with difficult times. It’s not a luxury; it’s a necessity. And that’s good news for the film and TV community, which is so woven into the fabric of the nation’s and the world’s culture. It has a powerful role to play, and it’s more than ready for it.