What Do We Do About Steve Rannazzisi?

Comedian Steve Rannazzisi is in the midst of his 7th seasons starring on the popular TV show,“The League;” he has a one-hour special coming up on Comedy Central, and is increasingly in demand for commercial endorsements. How did he distinguish himself among the large pack of similarly young, edgy stand-up comics? Well, he’s good—but them a lot of them are good. He is, however, the only one who has a harrowing tale of being a survivor of the 9/11/2001 Twin Towers attack. For more than a decade he has been telling interviewers about his narrow escape, how he was working at Merrill Lynch’s offices on the 54th floor of the South Tower when the first plane struck the North Tower, and how he rushed  out of the building and into the street just before the second hijacked  plane slammed into the tower he just left. That was an epiphanal moment for Rannazzisi, he has said, and realizing that every second of life was precious and that he was saved for something more important than pushing paper, Rannazzisi quit his conventional day job to pursue a career as a comic.

That back story made Rannazzisi seem uniquely human, appealing, and on a mission. It wouldn’t have boosted his career if he didn’t have the talent to capitalize on it, but he did. To some extent, all of his success has been built on the foundation of the Twin Towers’ fall, so his fans and employers have a dilemma to face: he was lying. The New York Times checked out his account, and determined that the comedian had been working in Midtown on 9-11, never was employed by Merrill Lynch (which had no offices in either tower), and has been lying all these years. This week, Rannazzisi confessed and apologized, saying in part,

“I was not at the Trade Center on that day. I don’t know why I said this. This was inexcusable. I am truly, truly sorry….For many years, more than anything.I have wished that, with silence, I could somehow erase a story told by an immature young man. It only made me more ashamed. How could I tell my children to be honest when I hadn’t come clean about this? It was profoundly disrespectful to those who perished and those who lost loved ones. The stupidity and guilt I have felt for many years has not abated. It was an early taste of having a public persona, and I made a terrible mistake. All I can ask is for forgiveness.”

(Excellent apology: Level One on the Apology Scale.)

Now what?

I think some compassion and understanding is fair here. The scenario where a false story concocted on a whim metastasizes into a life-long ruse is old, common, and human. “Oh what a tangled web weave…” did not spring from speculation. In almost all such cases, the fabulist can’t figure out how to leave the galloping lie behind without suffering consequences that become more serious by the day. Of course, an obvious first step to redemption is to stop telling the fake story, and this, despite Rannazzisi’s statement that he “wished that, with silence, I could somehow erase” his initial falsehood, he did not do.  The Times points out that…

“…a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Rannazzisi was still relating a harrowing experience. In a 2011 interview on the podcast “Sklarbro Country,” Mr. Rannazzisi said that he had gotten a good severance package from Merrill Lynch and that he clearly understood that Sept. 11 was a sensitive topic. “I’ve spoken about it before,” he said. “I just don’t ever want to feel like, anyone, I am cashing in or anything like that.”

He was, it seems, like a junkie, hooked on his own invention, and despite guilt and self-loathing, unable to mount the courage and strength to give it up.

Where is the line where a comedian’s conduct is so despicable and depraved that he can no longer be funny? I’m not certain. For thinking people with a modicum of decency, I would say Bill Cosby has charged over it. Woody Allen has as well, though the waters there are a bit muddier. I used to find Bill Maher funny on occasion before he started calling women he didn’t agree with “twats.” As talented as he is, Alec Baldwin’s boorishness and obnoxious statements make it impossible for me to appreciate his talents at this point: I will laugh at toxic assholes like Baldwin, but not with them.

Yet most comics have flawed character, and a disturbing number are sociopaths.  Most have also been expert at keeping their dark sides hidden from public view, though that challenge is harder now than ever before. If a comedian’s talent is blazing enough, I am going to laugh even if I know that behind closed doors the guy was a freak, a bastard, a fool or a monster: Chaplin, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar, Peter Sellers, John Belushi, Groucho Marx, Richard Pryor, Johnny Carson…it’s a depressingly long list.

The Times quotes a friend of Rannazzisi’s who defends him by saying that it’s not as if he’s a politician. That’s right: we don’t have to trust comedians and actors, we just have to be able to laugh at them. It’s easy to forgive Rannazzisi, I think. He didn’t hurt or betray anyone, like Cosby and Allen, and unlike them, he has acknowledged his wrongdoing. His credibility is damaged, probably beyond repair: Buffalo Wild Wings, which has employed him as a spokesman, said that it was “disappointed to learn of Steve’s misrepresentations regarding the events of September 11, 2001,” and was “re-evaluating our relationship with Steve pending a review of all the facts.” I’d bet that he loses that gig, and any future income that depends on his being believed is probably gone for good.

If Steve Rannazzisi can still make people laugh, however, he’ll overcome his shameful decade of lying. It depends on whether his talent is, in the end, more impressive than the lie was repugnant.


Facts: New York Times


15 thoughts on “What Do We Do About Steve Rannazzisi?

    • Pretty close – you can lie about a lot of things, but you don’t lie about being a POW, a 9/11 survivor, or a combat vet. I say we give the members of the FDNY’s rescue battalion, which was the hardest hit, 5 minutes with him. That should straighten him out.

  1. Never heard of the guy until now. Nice apology though. Best I’ve seen, probably ever. I suspect he will take a big hit, which he deserves, but if he’s a talented comedian and that’s what he still wants to do, he can go back to where he started, clubs or wherever, and start over. If he’s good, he will still be able to make a good living and have a career doing what he wants to do. If he’s not funny, he’ll have to do something else. No big deal. Life goes on.

    • Now, though, there is a mystery that Steve R. has not explained – what DID motivate him to work as a comic? DID he have an epiphany, elsewhere, and if so, what was it? Re-ordering of one’s life as a result the 9/11 attacks is still a credible reason for one to say one had an epiphany.

      It will be interesting to see if Steve R. continues to be a successful comic. The way Jack tells the tale, it seems like Steve has used his fraudulent nearly-a-victim-hood as a crutch or pry bar to open doors for himself. Now that he has been able to crash so many parties, he might be past the point of being “blacklisted” into oblivion. Or, word could get around, and he might end up virtually (non-conspiratorially) boycotted.

      Megyn Kelly or someone else on Fox News used a term of disgust the other night – I believe it was “Destitution Derby” – in reference to how POTUS candidates all seem to want to try to out-do each other in impressing folks with their “I-came-from-a-hard-place” schtick (translation: “I am one of you regular guys” – alternate translation: “Look at ME! I have cred, REAL cred!”). Steve R seems to have played that card, or something like it, for tickets to perform at comedy venues. I wish him well.

    • Not really. Brian Williams had a responsibility to maintain at least the veneer of honesty and respectability, in order for audiences to trust him to deliver the news accurately. There’s no such responsibility or requirement for comedians. Bill Cosby is truly vile but he was once funny.

  2. You really think repeating a self-aggrandizing lie about being in the Twin Towers and screaming “NIGGER!!! NIGGER!” at two black audience members during a comedy set are apposite? If the latter is 100, the former is no more than 25. It’s serious; I’ll be shocked if it’s a career killer.

  3. Maybe I’m just feeling generous today, or maybe I find him somewhat amusing in the current crop of comedians out there; but I think he’s giving a sincere apology, will still suffer consequences (see lost endorsement) and will do his best to not repeat the error. Thus, I’m inclined to forgive and let him move on.

  4. Thanks to you Jack, I wasted 30 minutes of my life yesterday reading up on Johnny Carson. I don’t really remember his comedy — he was already on his way out when I was in high school and I don’t think I was his target demographic — but I do remember him being an important part of my parents’ lives and Americana generally.

    Anyway, the more I think about your post, I feel like you’re coming up with an important exception to the King’s Pass or Everybody Does It. As a society, we need comedians in the same way that we need music and art. So should we just assume that they are mostly sociopaths and turn a blind eye unless it reaches Cosby-like proportions? (BTW –I have a hard time believing that Martin Short or Billy Crystal are sociopaths, but absolutely have no problem believing Chevy Chase and Bill Murray fall in that category.)

  5. Very odd. I met him a few times and he was the nicest guy in the world, and very talented. No clue why he would do this, but whatever; he’s a comedic actor, not a politician.

    These odd statements were shitty and dumb but, ultimately, have hurt no one…let’s forgive and move on. If you don’t like him, don’t watch him.

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