Lorne Michaels, executive producer: I was determined to do a show. I just didn’t know how to hit the right note. Letterman had come back, but his was conversation. We’re a hard-laughs comedy show.
Reese Witherspoon, host: My main concern was going to New York with an 18-month-old. We didn’t know if there were going to be more attacks or chemical warfare. I remember Lorne called and said, “Look, I understand if you don’t want to come. But I think it’s going to make all the difference in the world.” And I was like, “Okay, I’m going to do this.” The city was so quiet it was eerie. Lorne brought me into his office, and he was like, “People have to laugh. There’s such an importance in what we do.” It was a huge career lesson. Lorne said it was really important that I curse in the opening monologue. He said, “I really want you to say ‘fuck’ or something.” Because what happened to our country was profane, and he felt it deserved profanity. I think he also thought it was funny to have this tiny young blonde girl tell a joke whose punch line is “fuck.”
Michaels: Mayor Giuliani had done the show several times. And then we had the police chief, the fire chief, and a lot of guys from the Port Authority, none of whom had been away from ground zero. When they came to the studio, there was a thousand-yard stare. You know, they moved among us, but they were still down there … I had been agonizing about how to open. And I did a joke with the mayor where I ask, “Can we be funny?” And then he says, “Why start now?” Which is for me the ice-breaking moment. He was the voice of the city, and he needed to give us permission. I knew that joke would work, but Rudy, sometimes before he tells a joke he starts to smile. Because he knows what’s coming up. And so the only note I gave him was, “You have to just make eye contact with me.” And he did it great, and then we went into “Live from New York.”
Witherspoon: We didn’t do a lot of political satire. I did one skit where I was Britney Spears and Amy [Poehler] was the snake wrangler. Jimmy Fallon was the big star, and I had to do the required making–out–with–Jimmy Fallon skit.
Michaels: It wasn’t our best show ever. But it was a show, and it did go 90 minutes.
Amy Poehler, cast member: It was my first week. To be starting on a weekly comedy show at a time when everybody was declaring that we would never laugh again was very strange.
Michaels: Afterward, we all went to a party, and it was the first time anybody had been out. I remember I was in a booth with the mayor, and it was four or five in the morning before we started leaving. The mayor told me later that he went to a memorial service at a church that morning. He was sitting in the front row, and the priest came over and said, “Mr. Mayor, come with me.” And he took him into his office and told him to lie down [to rest].
Poehler: Looking back, the tricky part was in the months to follow. It was hard to do political satire; it was hard to make fun of the president. People were just too sad. All of a sudden you had these new bad guys like Osama bin Laden. And these were bad guys. These weren’t, like, jokey Nixon bad guys. So figuring out the comedy in all that was a struggle. I remember the second show of that season. At the time everybody was showing up to their offices wearing, like, flag shirts. Flag stuff was off the hook. So Will Ferrell did a sketch where he wore an American flag Speedo to work, and it was just him bending down and picking things up, and shoving his crotch in people’s faces. And there was such a release from the audience. It was so thrilling to hear people laugh.
Excerpt of the SNL joke, as written:
Baby polar bear: “Mom, are you sure I’m 100 percent pure polar bear?”
Mother polar bear: “Yes, you are 100 percent pure polar bear. But why do you keep asking me that?”
Baby polar bear: “Because I’m fucking freezing!”
Witherspoon’s on-the-spot revise, as a result of cold feet:
Baby polar bear: “Because I’m freezing my balls off!”