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How a star of The League convinced the world he was a 9/11 survivor

HOLLYWOOD, CA - AUGUST 16:  Actor Stephen Rannazzisi attends the Comedy Central Creative Arts Emmy Party at Boulevard 3 on August 16, 2014 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Comedy Central)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - AUGUST 16: Actor Stephen Rannazzisi attends the Comedy Central Creative Arts Emmy Party at Boulevard 3 on August 16, 2014 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Comedy Central)
Jesse Grant/Getty Images

Among the untold number of people who narrowly avoided being victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon — due to scheduling conflicts, intuition, or plain dumb luck — is a handful of celebrities, including Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane (who famously missed American Airlines Flight 11), Mark Wahlberg (who was reportedly booked on the same flight), and the Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson (who was late for a meeting at the WTC that morning).

Up until recently, that list included star of FXX sitcom The League and stand-up comedian Steve Rannazzisi, who repeatedly claimed in interviews he had been working in the Merrill Lynch offices in the south tower when the first plane hit, narrowly escaping before the building fell. Yesterday, though, Rannazzisi publicly apologized for fabricating the story.

"I was not at the Trade Center on that day," Rannazzisi said in a statement released through his publicist. "I don’t know why I said this. This was inexcusable. I am truly, truly sorry."

The reaction to Rannazzisi’s admission was swift and loud, with swarms of people taking to Twitter and elsewhere online to condemn the comic and express their confusion over why someone would make up such a story and maintain the lie for so long.

The timing of Rannazzisi’s confession is both auspicious and a bit perplexing, falling between the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the television debut of the comedian’s new stand-up special. But what’s even more remarkable is that it took this long for his lies to come out.

Rannazzisi has been telling this story for years

Rannazzisi’s tale has become part of his personal origin story, wherein his brush with death inspired him to give up his desk job in New York and move to L.A. to pursue a career in entertainment. He told Marc Maron in a 2009 episode of WTF With Marc Maron that he had been working as an account manager at Merrill Lynch on the 54th floor when the plane hit, and he had left the building and was watching, confused, from the street when the second plane hit and the towers fell. ("I just thought it was two drunk idiots," he tells Maron, who seems appropriately dubious of that statement.) He then claims that he and his girlfriend (now wife), who worked on the 24th floor but wasn’t at work yet, decided to leave New York that very day.

Rannazzisi re-told or alluded to this story several times over the years, including on the 2009 Showtime special Pauly Shore and Friends and on the Sklarbro Country podcast in 2011. As recently of September of last year, he recounted the story in a CBS Sports radio interview.

Nobody ever fact-checked his claims

Perhaps by virtue of Rannazzisi usually telling this story in casual interview scenarios, no one ever questioned his claims beyond asking for more detail, which he always seemed willing to provide. And that makes sense: Questioning the validity of someone’s personal tragedy is uncouth in the context of friendly conversation, which is how these interviews are generally presented.

But as The New York Times points out in its reporting of Rannazzisi’s confession, not only did Rannazzisi not work for Merrill Lynch, but Merrill Lynch didn’t even have offices in either tower. This second point seems particularly damning — surely someone listening to one of these interviews over the years might have known that Merrill Lynch is housed in the World Financial Center, which sits across West Street from where the towers stood. (A seemingly outdated table of WTC tenants incorrectly includes Merrill Lynch, which may explain where Rannazzisi got his intel from.)

There are aspects of Rannazzisi’s lie that flirt with accuracy: He apparently did actually work in Manhattan during the attacks — in Midtown, though — and there’s no real reason not to believe his claim that the events of 9/11 inspired him to leave New York. Many people, famous and otherwise, have similar stories of how that day changed their lives forever. But Rannazzisi took his account one step further, into the realm of fiction — and, ironically, it could end up changing his life forever.

Rannazzisi is already paying for his lie

The timing of Rannazzisi’s confession is particularly auspicious, given that this Saturday is the scheduled premiere of Breaking Dad, his second stand-up special for Comedy Central. The old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity may not apply in this case, however: Comedy Central told Variety in a statement, "We are very disappointed to hear about Steve’s misrepresentations and are currently determining how we will move forward."

FX, the parent network of The League (which is currently airing its seventh and final season on FXX), made a similar, though more supportive, statement: "It is upsetting that he would fabricate a story about having survived that horrible tragedy. It is also unfortunate that he did not admit to the truth sooner. That said, we believe Steve is sincere in his apology and will do everything he can to make amends moving forward."

But the most financially detrimental fallout of Rannazzisi’s actions could end up being the end of his relationship with restaurant chain Buffalo Wild Wings, for whom Rannazzisi is currently serving as a commercial spokesman.

The day of Rannazzisi's confession, Buffalo Wild Wings CEO Sally Smith told Yahoo Finance that the chain is "taking a look at how and if we continue that relationship," and said she was "launching her own investigation" into Rannazzisi’s claims, something she clearly regrets not doing earlier: "I think that anytime you’re working with a personality, [you have to consider] how you appropriately vet that personality and not have that personality take over for the brand, but supplement the message that you’re trying to portray. There’s always a risk and there’s always things that you need to be aware of."

Two days later, Buffalo Wild Wings confirmed that it would stop airing its ads featuring Rannazzisi.

The questions of why precisely Rannazzisi lied, why that lie wasn’t exposed earlier, and why he chose now to confess may never be satisfactorily answered. What does seem clear, though, is that Rannazzisi, whatever his motivation for coming clean, seems deeply ashamed of his actions.

Update: Changed to reflect Buffalo Wild Wings' discontinuation of Rannazzisi's ad campaign.

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