Comics find even war can be laughing matter
By Anthony Breznican
As U.S. forces engage in "shock and awe" tactics in Iraq, the war is getting the mock-and-guffaw treatment from political humorists.
With troops in harm's way and passions strong both in favor and against the war, comedians have had to balance their barbs against broad public sentiment.
"There's a more nationalistic tone than there was even in the first Gulf War. Instead of just making fun of the bad guys, there's now a real 'rah-rah' element," said Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington.
"There's a lot of stuff on late-night television that has an anti-authority edge. Now it has an anti-enemy edge," he added.
The safest target for ridicule remains Saddam Hussein with many jokes about the Iraqi leader focusing on his conspicuous absence from public view and rumors about his death.
"But you know there's some confusion now whether Saddam Hussein is actually alive or dead," David Letterman joked on CBS' "The Late Show." "They had videotape on Iraqi television earlier today, and it's so confusing. It's Saddam Hussein ... and he's speaking at his own funeral."
Other favored laughingstocks include the loose lips of Fox News reporter Geraldo Rivera, who angered the military by describing troop positions during a broadcast, and NBC's Peter Arnett, who was fired for saying on state-run Iraqi TV that the U.S.-led war effort initially had failed.
"Today, Saddam Hussein was supposed to appear on television and rally the Iraqi people ... but he was replaced at the last minute by Peter Arnett," Leno joked on NBC's "The Tonight Show."
Some have mocked Rivera's macho theatrics during his Middle East reports. "Today the U.S. Army kicked Geraldo Rivera out of Iraq," Craig Kilborn said on CBS' "The Late Late Show." "Why didn't someone tell us you can kick out Geraldo?"
France, which initially opposed U.S. action in Iraq but has lately expressed support for the end of Saddam's regime, remains the butt of many jokes. "There was another war-related casualty today," Leno joked in Thursday's broadcast.
"The French were injured when they tried to jump on our band-wagon."
Later on "The Tonight Show" Thursday, guest Dennis Miller ridiculed celebrity anti-war activists from Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks to Oscar winner Michael Moore, who was booed when he criticized President Bush at the Academy Awards. "It is that stupid moron's right to be that utterly completely wrong," Miller said.
American military people, meanwhile, remain a subject most comics avoid.
"It's not funny to us to make fun of the idea of people risking their lives, but there are a lot of ancillary subjects not connected to people dying and soldier sacrifice that are OK," said Stewart Bailey, producer of Comedy Central's news parody "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."
War leaders, however such as Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell are still fair game.
When Rumsfeld said in a press conference March 28 that Syria and Iran would be held accountable if they interfered in Iraq, Stewart had material for a comedic rant.
"There is nothing like a cantankerous old man who takes a hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn approach to foreign policy," he said. "The guy's literally just like a drunk swinging a broken bottle at people: 'Hey, Netherlands, you looking at me?"'
The satirical newspaper the Onion last week joked that the Bush administration had grown bored with the war after only two weeks. One article featured a fictitious quote from Bush whining: "I don't think my dad's war took this long, and we've got much better weapons now."
Colin Quinn, host of Comedy Central's panel discussion show "Tough Crowd," said true satirists have a responsibility to gather material from current events, even if that means making jokes about war.
"You can't ignore the reality," he said. "If you're a comedian, you're supposed to talk about what's going on. Instead of having an easy run of Jennifer Lopez jokes, you've got things to think about. This is where they separate the men from the boys in comedy."
Quinn is amused by the Pentagon's anxiety about killing, evidenced by their leaflet-dropping efforts to get Iraqi soldiers to surrender without a fight.
"What's next?" he joked. "Pretty soon we'll be dropping comment cards. 'Would you say your country goes to war often, sometimes or never?"'
"We're tiptoeing around trying not to hurt anybody, because we're afraid of offending people and the public opinion of world," Quinn added, saying the serious subtext to his humor is: "Troops are being put at risk, and we're not doing as well as we thought."
Journalist Daniel Kurtzman, who compiles and edits a compendium of political jokes for About.com, said war comedy can be therapeutic.
"People want to detach a little bit," Kurtzman said. "When you can laugh during wartime, it can be cathartic and empowering a way to engage in what's going on without necessarily being consumed by it."
On the Web:
- Late-night political jokes: http://politicalhumor.about.com
- "Tough Crowd" and "The Daily Show" sites: www.comedycentral.com
- Center for Media and Public Affairs: www.cmpa.com
- The Onion official site: www.theonion.com