Park City High School graduate’s documentary about comedy after 9/11 will premiere on Vice TV
‘Too Soon’ begins streaming on Sept. 8
Al-Qaeda terrorists stunned the world when they flew airplanes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
While the public tried to cope with the events, those in the comedy profession faced a dilemma — whether to make jokes about the events or not.
A new documentary, “Too Soon: Comedy after 9/11,” which is directed by Park City High School graduate Nick Scown and award-winning comedy journalist Julie Seabaugh, examines how comedians dealt with that predicament. It will premiere on Vice TV on Wednesday, Sept. 8.
The film’s title was taken from the response Gilbert Gottfried received from an audience member after cracking a joke about the attacks during his roast of Hugh Hefner shortly after Sept. 11, said Scown, who graduated from Park City High School in 1996.
The list of comedians interviewed for the film includes Gottfried, Janeane Garofalo, Marc Maron, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Cedric the Entertainer and more, he said.
“In the beginning it was trying to find who in the comedy scene would have a story to share,” Scown said. “As we got further along, we decided to focus on people who were there at the time and had to figure out how to move on after the attacks.”
Scown and Seabaugh also wanted to include comedians who have performed material about 9/11. And the two mainly relied on Seabaugh’s contacts to connect with the comedians who appear in the film.
“We wanted to talk about their processes and thinking, and why some jokes about 9/11 work, while others didn’t,” he said. “That helped us pare down the list.”
While making the documentary was a five-year process, Scown traces its formative roots back to when he was a film-school undergraduate student at the University of Utah when the terrorists attacked.
“I had planned to fly out to New York later that year to visit film schools,” he said. “After the attacks I still flew out to New York, but didn’t visit any schools. I just hung out with my friends who were dealing with the aftershock.”
Another reason Scown wanted to fly to New York was because he really loved the city.
“I had visited it a couple of times as a kid,” he said. “When I was a student at Park City High School, we took a drama class, spring-break trip to go see Broadway shows.”
Scown remembered the post-attack flight.
“There weren’t a lot of people on the plane, and all the shops were closed at the airport,” he said. “It seemed like our plane’s passengers were the only people walking through this empty, echoey terminal. And the city smelled of the fire that had been burning for days at the attack site.”
Although Scown wasn’t in New York during the attacks, he saw how they affected his friends and the local residents.
“I could tell people didn’t want to talk much, because things were so emotionally difficult,” he said. “I got the feeling that they knew that talking about the attacks would open more wounds, but at the same time I had the feeling that they really struggled with not talking, because this was on everybody’s minds.”
One of the things that gave Scown comfort was the Sept. 26 edition of The Onion, a satirical newspaper that was published 15 days after the attacks.
The paper included headlines “Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves in Hell: ‘We Expected Eternal Paradise for This,’ Say Suicide Bombers” and “Hugging Up 76,000 Percent.”
“When I saw the Onion’s 9/11 issue, it was the first time I really laughed in a couple of weeks,” Scown said. “That cathartic power of laughing has stuck with me since then.”
Scown had kept the idea in the back of his mind until he ran across Tim Ferriss’ 2009 how-to book, “The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.”
“I bought the book for a family member, and I looked through it,” Scown said. “It had a lot of great ideas, but the one that grabbed a hold of me said think of five people you can email for help whenever you get an idea for a project you don’t think you can do.”
The first person Scown thought about was Seabaugh, whom he met at a friend’s wedding.
“She was a comedy journalist for years,” he said. “We met for lunch and I pitched her the idea.”
It turned out that Seabaugh had also found post-9/11 comfort with the same issue of the Onion.
“So we talked more and decided we should just start making the film ourselves, rather than wait for someone to give us the money to do it,” Scown said. “I found that to be a strong approach, because people are more apt to join a project that is already being worked on.”
Over the years the filmmakers used SkyMiles and hotel points to travel to various cities to round up as many interviews as they could.
“Eventually we had enough material to share with production companies, and we found a partner, Dan Baglio, at Pulse Films,” Scown said.
Baglio produced the CNN original series “The History of Comedy” with Sean Hayes and Todd Milliner of Hazy Mills Productions, Scown said.
“They also had many contacts we could tap for the film, and we all kind of agreed that we were all a good fit to finish our film,” he said. “They helped fund our last interviews and post production.”
After pitching “Too Soon” to various networks and other distributors, the filmmakers found it a home with Vice TV.
“They had read our materials and saw our trailers, and wanted to do it,” Scown said.
Once that deal was set, Scown and Seabaugh shot the remaining interviews and finished the film in the middle of the coronaviru pandemic.
“Because Julie and I had already done so much of the work ourselves, not a lot of people were worried about whether or not we would get the film done in time for the 20th anniversary of 9/11,” he said. “I knew we could, and I’m glad we did.”
One of the biggest things Scown learned while making the film was how much thought comics put into their material.
“They just don’t go up on stage and riff,” he said. “They spend a lot of time thinking about whether or not something is an appropriate target. They, like us, were dealing with PTSD after the attacks and had to find ways to discuss things so they, themselves, could also deal with what they were feeling.”
During the interviews, Scown saw how comedians become stand-ins for how the general public sees the world.
“They point out the truths we have thought about in our heads and hearts that we don’t put words to,” he said. “They articulate those thoughts and feelings.”
When: Wednesday. Sept. 8
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