The timing was unfortunate, but that doesn't make it offensive.
Conan O'Brien topped even his last stint hosting the Emmys with a fantastic performance. One of the funniest bits was a seven minute pre-recorded opening reminiscent of some of Billy Crystal's better outings as Oscar host. Conan, in a tux and sipping a drink, is in a plane heading towards the Emmys. When the stewardess asks him if he's nervous, he replies "Nervous? What could possibly go wrong?" Of course, that's a cue for the plane to crash, predictably landing him on the Lost island. From there, he tours through several shows – the American version of The Office, House, 24, South Park, and one of those many Dateline NBC installments on child predators. He flees that show and emerges on stage for the Emmys.
Because I was working all day Sunday, I didn't hear anything beyond perhaps a cursory report on the tragic plane crash in Kentucky of Comair Flight 5191, which killed 49 people and has been called the worst airplane accident in five years. I taped the Emmys and watched them late Sunday night. The writing for the opening segment was very sharp and the segment was very funny. I laughed. It was only afterwards, watching the news, that I saw footage on the Kentucky flight and learned more details. Surely most people, whenever they found out, paused for a moment to consider with sympathy the victims of that accident and their families.
This morning, The Kentucky Herald-Ledger reported that the local NBC affiliate's president and general manager, Tim Gilbert, was stunned and dismayed by the segment. The AP version of the story is running with variations on the title "Emmy Plane Crash Skit Called Insensitive." Both accounts relay:
"It was a live telecast -- we were completely helpless," Gilbert said of the Emmys. "By the time we began to react, it was over. At the station, we were as horrified as they were at home."
He said he'll complain to NBC, but he said an apology won't make up for insensitivity.
"They could have killed the opening and it wouldn't have hurt the show at all," Gilbert said. "We wish somebody had thought this through. It's somewhere between ignorance and incompetence."
For people in Kentucky, with feelings especially raw, it might have made sense to cut the segment, or at least give Gilbert a head's up about it to give him that option, or the option of running a brief warning prior to it. Last year, in the wake of Katrina, NBC and ABC ran warnings before the pilot episodes for their shows Surface and Invasion, because both depicted hurricanes. But Kentucky is also not the rest of the country. Had I known about the crash in more detail, I'm sure I would have thought briefly, "that's unfortunate timing," but the segment's also clearly comedy, referencing a popular TV series, and hardly was a realistic depiction of a plane crash. There's a sufficient degree of remove there. Most critics I've read or heard have expressed pretty much this sentiment – unfortunate timing, perhaps, but not a huge deal.
Interestingly, while a few readers express outrage in Herald-Ledger's comments section ("the most insensitive thing" on TV they've ever seen, etc.), most take the "no big deal" view as well, and several criticize Gilbert. At least one reader bristles at the idea that any station manager would decide what he or she can or can't watch, and several point out that if you're watching the Emmys versus, say, grieving, you're probably detached enough anyway. Conan O’Brien is also not a “mean” comic, really. He has an edge, he can be biting, but his persona is goofy and self-deprecating. No one familiar with Conan and his show could possibly think he would seek to be cruel.
Meanwhile, I'm not familiar with Gilbert, but let's be charitable and assume that his outrage is sincere and not merely a local public relations move (as some locals charged). It's fine for NBC to apologize for the timing or for no notice to Kentuckians. But it would be silly to apologize for the segment itself, and ludicrous to apologize for airing it in the rest of the country. Airing it was neither "ignorant" nor "incompetent." This was a pre-recorded segment. The wheels were in motion. The plane crash happened the day of the Emmys. The host really only does about twenty minutes of material during one of those shows, so yes, killing a seven minute segment would have hurt the actually entertaining section of the show (the lengthy Aaron Spelling tribute section, on the other hand, could have been cut or at least trimmed). And while some viewers, especially those in Kentucky, may have had raw feelings, and are deserving of sympathy, the segment was not inherently offensive. I know others may feel differently, and they are entitled to their feelings. However, there’s a crucial difference between saying, “That upset me” or “That offended me,” and “that is offensive.” There’s a difference between expressing one’s feelings or making a direct appeal to someone, and trying to invoke some greater principle or universal law to condemn and prohibit another’s action. The latter approach doesn’t really hold water here, especially since the motives involved were innocent.
There's a saying that comedy is tragedy plus time. Thus, "Besides that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?" is funny now, whereas it would have been the height of bad taste in 1865. I doubt 9/11 jokes will be in vogue for a long time. For that matter, not every one wants, or can bear to watch, serious material dealing with 9/11 such as World Trade Center, United 93 or any of a number of news documentaries. It's responsible for movie studios to let 9/11 families websites know which movies, in which theaters, will be showing trailers for 9/11 films ahead of them. (In fact, some of this did happen, even though the studios could do a better job of it.) But this does not mean the studios should not make these films, or that good comedians should be curtailed from doing their job either. It's fine and sometimes appropriate to call for good taste and sensitivity, and in some cases to call for someone's resignation, but there is not, nor can or should there ever be, a right to not feel offended.
Personally, my criteria for judging any artistic endeavor is aesthetic, not emotional, even if there's inevitably overlap. Let's be completely honest – Conan O'Brien's performance was satire in the vein of Jon Stewart (a double Emmy winner last night!) and Stephen Colbert, not some crass commercial exploitation in the vein of the inevitable John Mark Karr-Jon Benet Ramsey TV-made movie crap that surely must be rushing to production as we speak. I prefer to judge 9/11 films, as with my comedy, by how good they are, and find no difficulty with simultaneously feeling sympathy for the victims of a plane crash and their families, and appreciating sharp comedy. While the world surely could use more compassion, we also direly need more comedy (albeit not the unintended sort practiced by public officials). I would argue that compassion and laughter can actually be closely connected.
Update: The Washington Post’s Lisa de Moraes fielded many questions on this subject in an online chat. I was frankly surprised by how many people thought the segment was incontrovertibly offensive, since it seemed they appeared in higher ratio than in Kentucky (at the time I read through the comments, at least). You can read the entire chat here. I found myself agreeing the most with Moraes' first response to the issue:
Gaithersburg Md.: ...So you didn't find Conan's plane crash skit offensive? Even though 49 Americans had died in a plane crash hours before the show?
Lisa de Moraes: Absolutely not. I know I suffer from acute non-PC-ness. But of course the skit was created long before the crash. If I lose a relative tonight should all references to stroke victims be wiped from the TV landscape lest I be offended? I think people need to put things in perspective and stop with the bashing where absolutely no offense was intended. If they'd made jokes about that crash, sure I'd think it was in poor taste. But it was CLEARLY a reference to the show "Lost" and absolutely nothing more.