A few days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a producer at The Tonight Show With Jay Leno received a call from the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Joe Allbaugh had a message from President Bush for Jay Leno and his staff: Help the country get back to normal by putting The Tonight Show back on the air.
And so, as the producer Dave Berg recounted in this Washington Times story, they scheduled a show for Sept. 18, 2001. Then they got to the task of deciding how to be funny after such an unspeakable tragedy.
I wasn’t able to find a video of the show online, but Berg describes an episode unlike any other. No music, no flashy intro, no monologue.
Leno, wearing an American flag pin for the first time, went straight to his desk. He said the staff’s prayers were with the victims and their families.
Next, Leno brought up a Scouting anecdote. I’ll let Berg tell it from here:
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 “cheermaster.” 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.