Eighteen days befor the start of the 27th season of “Saturday Night Live” the world was forever altered by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Nearly every regular television program was stopped in their tracks, as the country processed its grief.
At SNL, the entire premise of the show was to be funny, and laughter was not something that was in ready supply at the moment.
When the show eventually came back on the air on September 29th, 2001, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani opened the show, telling the world that the citizens of New York would “choose to live our lives in freedom.”
Behind Mayor Giuliani stood firefighters and police officers who had just come Ground Zero, the dust of the rubble dancing off their clothes and visible under the bright lights of the studio audience.
After Giuliani spoke, the camera cut to singer Paul Simon, a native New Yorker and beloved songwriter who captured the evening’s somber tone with a performance of “The Boxer.”
“I though that Paul singing, particularly singing that song would capture the strength of the city and the emotion,” SNL mastermind Lorne Michaels would later say.
When Simon finished his song the camera returned to Lorne Michaels, who had now joined the mayor on the main stage.
“Can we be funny?” Michaels asked, setting up one of the greatest moments in television history.
“Why start now?” Giuliani responded, sending the audience into hysterics.