Reno: A rebel with a cause
New York comedian Reno, takes on American patriotism and the U.S. war on terrorism in Nancy Savoca's documentary "Reno, Rebel Without a Pause" which premiers at the Toronto International Film Festival
By MARY-ELLEN ANDERSON, CTV News Staff
September 9, 2002
In the days that followed the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, most of America's comedians were silenced. David Letterman, Jay Leno and Rosie O'Donnell stopped taping rather than try to crack jokes. But New York comedian Karen Reno kept going.
"After Sept. 11 there was nothing more to talk about. It superceded everything else," she says.
Less than a month later, standing alone on a small stage off-Broadway, Reno opened her hilarious and sometimes sad one-woman show, aptly tilted Reno: Rebel Without a Pause. Her unrepentant and uncompromising look at America's reaction to 9/11 takes aim at her country's overt displays of patriotism and questions Washington's subsequent war on terrorism.
Now, as the anniversary of Sept. 11 nears, Reno's barbed commentary is set to reach a wider audience with the premiere of a documentary chronicling her show, directed by Nancy Savoca (If These Walls Could Talk).
The film begins with an answering machine message from Reno's friend Pat, who apologizes for calling so early.
"Reno, Reno, Reno - we're really sorry to be waking you but there's something happening outside that you really don't want to miss."
Reno, who prefers to work through the night, had gone to sleep around seven that morning in her Tribeca apartment (eight blocks from the World Trade Center). She was awakened less than a two hours later by the impact of the first plane hitting the tower.
Reno gets a big laugh when she tells the audience, "I thought to myself -- suicide bombers -- and I went back to sleep."
After many more calls from worried friends, Reno recalls how she finally dragged herself out of bed and headed outside where to her horror the neighbourhood, where she's lived for 21 years, had been transformed into "TriBeCastan."
On stage Reno is a nervous ball of energy, pacing back and forth, arms gesticulating as her free-flowing commentary bounces from one subject to the next. While she might seem like she's jacked up on too many double espressos, there's a message in her madness.
Sitting at one of her favourite neighbourhood restaurants, Bubby's, with her beloved dog beside her, Reno says while other comedians considered the tragedy off limits she had no choice but to talk about it.
"I felt a tremendous need and opportunity to tackle some of the myriad of woven complexities that would produce an event such as Sept. 11 and that would influence the effect of an event such as Sept. 11."
"I watched the towers burn with my friends feeling like an amoeba, feeling totally useless. And I'm thinking that Ashcroft (U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft ) is going to have this as an excuse to bring in all the controls to cut back that Bill of Rights in a way that will look more like the New Testament or something else he's a little more comfortable with."
In her show Reno takes aim at the blind patriotism Americans wore on their sleeves after 9/11. At one point she plays a tape of Quebec pop diva Celine Dion singing God Bless America, pointing out that the singer is Canadian. After the laughter dies down, many think she's about to make fun of Dion, but instead Reno is deeply moved by the song and has to fight back tears as she asks the audience if the song is just more manipulation.
"This was a time when we were all being tested for our patriotism," she tells the audience. "My own friends said, 'don't talk like that about the president.' The who?" she asks. "Oh, you mean the guy that got appointed by his brother," she adds to much applause.
Nothing's sacred and no one escapes her stinging commentary. Not former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and certainly not the commander and chief, U.S. President George W. Bush, who at the time her show was filmed was enjoying unprecedented popularity in the polls.
She attacks Bush's poor vocabulary reminding everyone that "when he's not rehearsed he's like a drunk trying to act sober."
For Reno the idea that only one person or one political party can be right is ludicrous. She dismisses the concept that to be patriotic you couldn't question what was going on in your city, state or country.
"We don't go through layers in this country. We're a young country and we are just about the first impression. So much is about that," she says.
Shaking her head she adds that too often the American media glosses over what's happening barely scratching the surface of an issue.
"That's why when you have a big event such as Sept. 11 … we immediately put it together like it's a show. We're a little too shallow. We don't pay attention to history," she says.
On stage she jokes that as she and her neighbours stood on the street watching the towers burn "people were saying 'well let's go upstairs and turn on the television." Becoming deadly serious for a moment Reno asks: "Do we do that to validate what we're looking at?"
In the months that followed 9/11, Reno dug deeper and found herself questioning the rhetoric coming out of Washington. She felt that her role was "to not hold back, to not limit myself or editorialize."
She felt it was important for people to start talking, even debating, the war on terror rather than blindly accept Bush's word as the gospel. And surprisingly Reno found that while not everyone agreed with her ideas, many were at least willing to listen.
"People have never done anything but thank me because they've had a hard time in the current environment saying what they want to say and because my show is not monolithic. It's not one frickin' opinion the whole time. I go back and forth, I have all these confusions, I have all these questions."
Reno's had to pay a price for sticking her neck out though. She says everyone involved with Savoca's documentary expected it to be picked up by a major cable network that's aired her work in the past. But this time, Reno says they didn't even bite. And Toronto's Festival Director Piers Handling has had to defend his decision to program the film, along with others that question America's stand post 9/11.
Yet despite this Reno believes that speaking out is exactly what the American constitution and the Bill of Rights allows them to do.
"Everybody who has any feeling or response in any way involved with any event, be it Sept. 11 or anything else, has a right to do a story, to do a show, to do whatever, " Reno says.
"Everybody did talk about it privately. The only difference with me was that I talked about it publicly."
Screening times: Monday, Sept. 9, 9 PM, Varsity 8;
Wednesday, Sept. 11, 5:45 PM, Cumberland 3