When comedian Steve Rannazzisi has explained his success, which includes seven seasons starring on a popular TV show, “The League,” and a one-hour special this Saturday on Comedy Central, he has frequently attributed it to decisions he made after narrowly escaping the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
In elaborate detail, Rannazzisi, 37, has described working at Merrill Lynch’s offices on the 54th floor of the south tower when the first plane struck the north tower.
“I was there and then the first tower got hit and we were like jostled all over the place,” he told an interviewer in 2009.
He fled to the street just minutes before another plane slammed into his building, he said, and decided that very day that life was too precious to waste opportunities. So he abandoned his New York desk job to pursue a career as an entertainer in Los Angeles.
Nonetheless, he said, he remained affected by his memories of that day.
“I still have dreams of like, you know, those falling dreams,” he told the interviewer.
Confronted this week, though, with evidence that undermined his account, Rannazzisi, after a day of deliberation, acknowledged on Tuesday that his account was fiction. Actually, he had been working in Midtown Manhattan that day, and not for Merrill Lynch, which has no record of his employment and had no offices in either tower.
“I was not at the Trade Center on that day,” he said in a statement provided by his publicist, Matthew Labov. “I don’t know why I said this. This was inexcusable. I am truly, truly sorry.”
It was unclear how Rannazzisi’s admission might affect his standing with networks or sponsors, including Buffalo Wild Wings, which had made him the face of an ad campaign associated with the start of this NFL season and which had featured him in commercials last spring for March Madness.
“We are disappointed to learn of Steve’s misrepresentations regarding the events of September 11, 2001,” Buffalo Wild Wings said in a statement Tuesday night. “We are currently re-evaluating our relationship with Steve pending a review of all the facts.”
Rannazzisi, who declined requests for an interview, said in his statement that, once he had lied, he could not figure out a way to undo the damage.
“For many years, more than anything,” he said, “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?”
His interviews, though, several of which remain posted on the Internet, show that a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, Rannazzisi was still relating a harrowing experience. In a 2011 interview on the podcast “Sklarbro Country,” 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.”
Rannazzisi, who is originally from Long Island, New York, is far from the first person whose Sept. 11 account has been exaggerated or, as is the case here, false. The most startling example of this was a Spanish woman, Alicia Esteve Head, who went by the name Tania Head. She joined the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network support group and went on to become its president, but her story of escape from the 78th floor of the south tower was fabricated. She was believed to be in Barcelona, Spain, on Sept. 11.
Her rationale for suggesting she was there remains no clearer than Rannazzisi’s. But what is clear is that, since he moved to Los Angeles shortly after the attacks, with his girlfriend, now his wife, his profile has risen steadily. In 2003, he was noticed by actor Ashton Kutcher, who gave him his first TV role, as a cast member on MTV’s “Punk’d,” according to Rannazzisi’s website.
From there, Rannazzisi was cast in several movies and TV sitcoms, including “The League” on FXX, about the high jinks of friends in a fantasy football league, where he has played Kevin MacArthur, an assistant district attorney and commissioner of the league.
In 2013, he got a standup special, “Steve Rannazzisi: Manchild” on Comedy Central, the network that helped start the careers of Jon Stewart and Amy Schumer. On Saturday, Rannazzisi’s new one-hour special, “Breaking Dad,” will debut on that network.
Many of these milestones are recounted on his website, though it also incorrectly reports he is a graduate of the State University of New York at Purchase, a college with a noted reputation in the performing arts. Rannazzisi is actually a graduate of SUNY Oneonta, where he majored in communications, according to Labov, who described the discrepancy as an oversight.
As for his Sept. 11 account, Rannazzisi gave a detailed version to comedian Marc Maron on his podcast in December 2009, saying he had worked as an account manager for Merrill for a year and a half and had been watching from the street when the second plane struck.
“I couldn’t tell exactly where it went in,” Rannazzisi said. “So, I called up to the office, and it was pandemonium. They were like, ‘We are on our way down, we are on our way down.’”
Rannazzisi had noted in some interviews that his girlfriend also worked in the south tower on Sept. 11 on the 24th floor, but said that she had been delayed and never made it to the building. (Actually, Rannazzisi got that wrong as well. Labov said on Tuesday that she was scheduled to work as a temp on Sept. 11, but in the World Financial Center, nearby, not in the south tower.) When they both got home, he said on the podcast, they decided they would move to Los Angeles.
“We went up to the roof of our building, we smoked a joint and then decided we are going to leave,” he said.
Rannazzisi gave a similar account on the TV special “Pauly Shore & Friends” in 2009.
Rannazzisi, sitting on a couch in his home next to his wife, who was cradling their baby, told Shore that the attacks had forced the couple to re-evaluate their lives.
“We decided that we were moving,” he said. “We were like: ‘You know what? I am going to do what I want to do now.’ I wasn’t doing a lot of comedy. I wasn’t doing lot of acting, what I went to school for.”
In recent years, Rannazzisi played down his account. In a 2013 radio interview on “The Don Geronimo Show,” he corrected the interviewer who suggested he had been in the south tower on Sept. 11.
“I was outside, really,” he said. “I was working downtown at that time.”
That rollback story was also off, but Rannazzisi sounded contrite on Tuesday in the statement he released about his 9/11 fabrications.
“It was profoundly disrespectful to those who perished and those who lost loved ones,” he said. “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.”
Susan Beachy and Jack Begg contributed research.