What now?

From Sting and Britney to the Backstreet Boys and Madonna, the entertainment business is grappling with how best to respond to last week's nightmare.

By Amy Reiter

Published September 17, 2001 4:16PM (EDT)

How, after the events of last week, do we pull ourselves together and go about our normal lives?

And how can we possibly justify allowing ourselves to laugh?

The justification, I suppose, is that sometimes laughter's just what we need to remind ourselves that we're alive.

"It's not easy to do it at this time, but I'll do it if makes someone feel better," Don Rickles told Variety Thursday as he waited to find out if his stand-up comedy show at the Stardust in Las Vegas would go on.

The cast of "The Producers" returned to the stage on Thursday, but closed their hit Broadway show by leading the audience in a sing-along of "God Bless America."

And Valerie Harper addressed audiences for the Broadway comedy "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," in which she stars, before the play began.

"It is such a privilege for us to perform for you tonight and to see you make a choice to come out, to laugh and most importantly to carry on and not be ruled by fear," Harper read on behalf of everyone involved in the show. "Together we are all going to get through this and we are going to be OK. Thank you for joining us tonight and God bless America."

Britney Spears bowed out of a scheduled press conference in Australia to promote her new album, saying she felt it would be inappropriate. "This pales in comparison to what we have just witnessed," she said. "My thoughts and condolences are with our fellow citizens who have lost their lives and with their friends and families."

Sting canceled his gala 50th birthday party, which he'd planned for Marrakesh, Morocco, on Sept. 27, "because of the recent dramatic events in the United States and their psychological effect on the artist and his guests."

And pop musicians including Destiny's Child, Aerosmith and KD Lang, opted to continue to delay their tours.

But Madonna resumed her Drowned World Tour Thursday, and Earth, Wind & Fire and Sade picked up their instruments and returned to the stage. And even the Backstreet Boys, who lost a member of their crew in one of the planes used in the attack, decided to go through with a scheduled appearance in Toronto. The band dedicated the performance to carpenter Daniel Lee, 34, who had been on American Flight 11 on Tuesday, headed from Boston to L.A. to spend time with his pregnant wife during a break in touring.

Further afield, the U.K.'s Farm Aid, an all-day benefit concert for farmers hit by foot-and-mouth disease long planned for Oct. 27, was canceled in response to the attacks, but other artists called for benefit concerts for the victims of the attacks and their families. Alanis Morrissette posted a message to fans on her Web site saying she was "talking about putting on some sort of relief show(s) with the purpose of reaching out to those who have been touched by all that has happened this week."

The Latin Grammys were canceled, and the Emmys, which were to be held Sunday, have been pushed back to Oct. 7. All three major networks have pushed back their fall TV premieres until at least Sept. 24, and cable stations and networks alike have scrambled to eliminate terrorist-related programming from their lineups for the time being. (The Discovery Channel replaced its doom-and-gloom Disaster Week, scheduled for last week, with a series of animal specials.)

But sooner or later, they expect a return to normalcy. "Right now, it's all about news coverage," ABC Entertainment executive Jeff Bader told the Hollywood Reporter. "At some point, it will be about entertainment again."

A downloadable video game called "WTC Defender," in which players try to shoot down terrorist planes headed for the World Trade Center (if you fail, they blow up the Twin Towers), was pulled from a gamer site called Angelfire. "Please note -- the game was not meant to offend anyone," the site said, offering its "deepest condolences to all of you who have lost someone in this tragedy."

And Hollywood studios sprang into action, removing images of the World Trade Center from promotional materials for "Spider-Man" (Tobey McGuire's character will no longer snag a helicopter full of the bad guys in a web strung between the twin towers) and postponing indefinitely the release of the terrorist-related films "Big Trouble" and "Collateral Damage."

Upcoming films like "Men in Black 2," which ends with a shot of the World Trade Center, and "Nosebleed," in which Jackie Chan was to play a window washer at the WTC, will likely be re-edited.

Yet Paramount Pictures decided to go ahead with the release of the upbeat, redemptive "Hardball," in which Keanu Reeves plays an inner-city Little League baseball coach, on Friday.

"It's hard to say, 'Go see a movie'" after Tuesday's tragedy, the film's director Brian Robbins told Reuters, "but it sort of feels like if you are going to want some entertainment, it's a movie to see."

And what about gossip?

"It's not possible to write about canoodling supermodels or dyspeptic pop divas when terrorists are killing our friends and relatives and scaring our children," New York Post Page Six scribe Richard Johnson told Los Angeles Times columnist Ann O'Neil. Wednesday was the first time in 25 years Page Six did not run. "Sept. 11," Johnson said, "is the day gossip died."

"I would feel as a person silly and irrelevant if I were doing my column right now," Lloyd Grove, who writes the Washington Post's Reliable Source column, said.

"A national tragedy certainly drives gossip and entertainment out of the news," wrote gossip veteran Liz Smith, "which could be the only good thing one might say about such a tragedy ... things may never go back to normal."

Mitchell Fink, of the New York Daily News, is a little more hopeful, telling O'Neil that, while normalcy won't return for a while, "there will come a time when people will be desperate to read other things. Pretty soon, people are going to want some kind of diversion."

Mayor Giuliani has encouraged us to go on with our normal lives in an act of defiance toward terrorism. But getting up and going to work is one thing; reading snarky comments about celebrities is quite another.

Yet it's part of many of our daily routines. And more than that, even at such moments, it's apparently in our nature.

Thursday, as I worked to rewrite a piece on the New York City firefighters who have risked -- and in some cases given -- their lives in this tragedy, a colleague rushed in: Had I heard the rumor that Whitney Houston had died of a drug overdose?

"Who cares about Whitney Houston?" I said.

But turning back to my computer, I noticed that two e-mails asking the same question had popped into my in box.

With no relish, I looked into the rumor and found out that Houston's publicist was denying it. Whitney was just fine and home with her family in New Jersey.

"I've just spoken to Whitney," Nancy Seltzer told the press. "She is perfectly fine and does not understand why, with everything going on in the world right now, they have to find new rumors to dig up."

To tell you the truth, I'm with Whitney. I can't really understand it either.

And I certainly don't know how, as the smoke from the World Trade Center continues to drift by my office window, I will turn back to Nothing Personal, to delighting in relaying and debunking such rumors and cracking wise about celebrities.

But while now we busy ourselves giving blood, supporting the rescue workers, and doing what we can for the victims and their families, at some point, this will recede into history and we'll manage to absorb it as we have other atrocities. While now it seems inconceivable to laugh and to snark, at some point it will again seem essential.

In the meantime, I'd like to invite you to share your thoughts as we attempt to return to normal. Tell me about an instance when humor, reading about the lives of celebrities and other trivial pursuits during a rough time have been just what you needed. Tell me if you still care about gossip, celebrities, Britney and Pamela, Tom and Penelope, Russell, Nicole and the rest. Tell me if you think you never will again.

Email me at amy@salon.com, (use the subject line: "Trivial Pursuits") and I'll run excerpts from your notes in this space. I look forward to hearing from you all.

Amy Reiter

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