Security Theatre

In the postscript to yesterday's post reflecting on how the world has changed in the decades since 9/11, I linked to Jon Stewart's first monologue on The Daily Show after the attacks. Comedy plays an essential role in our society, especially in the wake of a tragedy, when it's hardest to create.

As another example, look no further than the first episode of SNL that aired after the attacks. (After the initial segment, you can cut to the 7:14 mark to skip the song and watch the rest of the opening.)

It’s remarkable for multiple reasons, not least because Rudy Giuliani still had bipartisan credibility back then. This exchange between him and Producer Lorne Michaels particularly stands out:

GIULIANI: Having our city’s institutions up and running sends a message that New York City is open for business. Saturday Night Live is one of our great New York City institutions, and that’s why it’s important for you to do your show tonight.

MICHAELS: Can we be funny?

GIULIANI: Why start now?

In college, a Second City leader talked to one of my classes about an interaction he once had after one of their performances. The show included a joke about 9/11, since enough time had passed since the attacks. Afterwards, an audience member approached him to say that she’d lost someone close to her that day, and that it was too soon to joke about it. The executive empathized with her, acknowledging that there may never be a day where 9/11-based humor would resonate with her. But the rest of us, he argued, needed to be able to laugh in order to process the events of that day and move on.

Comedy isn't the only form of entertainment that serves a broader purpose. Theatre in general often serves as way to restore trust in public safety. This is true not just of security theatre, which dramatically expanded after 9/11 and has been written about many times. It's also true of regular theatre.

When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in May of 1883, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, and the public was wary of its safety. Steel wire suspension bridges were still a new technology, and 27 people had died during its construction, including its designer. Just days after it opened, 12 more people died when a panicked crowd stampeded across it.

If you’re a city official, what do you do when the public is scared of a new bridge? Call in the circus, of course.

A year after its opening, after previously turning him down, New York City asked PT Barnum march 21 elephants, 7 camels, and 10 dromedaries (another type of camel) across it to help prove the bridge would hold.

As the report of the event in The New York Times stated, “it seemed as if Noah's ark were emptying itself over on Long Island.”


After 9/11, Broadway needed to encourage audiences to return, so they assembled a crowd of Broadway stars to perform in Times Square. A recording of the performance served as the basis for a national TV campaign, and ticket sales started to rebound.

(And because history often rhymes, today Broadway shows find themselves collaborating once again on marketing after disaster. This time to get vaccinated, masked crowds to return.)

Theatre provides more than just entertainment. Watching people (and animals!) put on a show reminds us that life must go on and reassures us that it’s safe to enjoy the ride.

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