Trying for a Comeback

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They tiptoed past Princess Diana’s death and remained silent in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. The Gulf War, so winnable, so far away, was different. There were jokes about Saddam Hussein, a “Saturday Night Live” sketch lampooning the pool media coverage--all those reporters in tan outfits in the desert.

But nothing, really, approaches this.

As if coming out of hiding to see if the coast is clear, the nation’s comedic pundits, satirists and late-night talk show hosts are going back to work. But they are returning to a culture that has shifted drastically since they last appeared on television, at comedy clubs and on theater stages.

“There are people who feel the fact that you’re on TV at all is inappropriate,” Jay Leno said Thursday. “The Tonight Show” host, struck dumb like the rest of the nation by the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., is scheduled to go back on the air Tuesday. The chief butt of Leno’s jokes--the president of the United States--is now, presumably, off-limits. Still, Leno figured, the time had come to take people’s minds off the numbing events of the week.


“At some point you say, OK, let’s try to get some sense of normalcy,” he said.

But what is normalcy for political comics who are suddenly presented with a news event that seems untouchable, a country in no mood for levity? And if the cliche about humor is true--that comedy is the equivalent of tragedy plus time--how do you know when that time has come?

“When things are good, when things are normal, you make fun of the good guys, the president, the Congress,” said Larry Gelbart, the comedy writer who developed the TV hit “MASH” and whose satire has included the film “Weapons of Mass Distraction” and the play “Mastergate,” which skewered the Iran-Contra hearings.

In tragic and tough times, Gelbart notes, humor can both soothe and betray the pain just below the surface--most movingly, when victims use humor to gain a measure of empowerment. “On good authority, we know that people made jokes in the [concentration] camps, during the Holocaust,” Gelbart said. On a less defiant scale, “people were making [John F.] Kennedy jokes within 48 hours of his death. There will be World Trade Center jokes by the end of next week, I promise you. We do that as a form of denial. If we laugh at it, how scary can it be? So scary that we laugh about it.”

It’s a paradox that will play out in writers’ rooms at sitcoms, in comedy clubs that are reopening this weekend, and when the cameras roll on talk shows.

If NBC’s “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” go back on the air Tuesday, it is unclear what the shows will look and sound like--how monologues will be worded, to say nothing of conducting interviews with actors whose TV and film projects now seem beyond trivial.

At an NBC staff meeting Wednesday, Leno told network employees he had called Johnny Carson’s office to get his predecessor’s advice on how to deal with the situation. Referring to the way Carson handled things in the wake of the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, Leno told NBC staffers: “What did he do in any tragedy? He waited a respectful amount of time, he came on the air with thoughtful comments and went on with the show. And that’s what we have to do.”


But with news divisions likely to stretch their shows into late night, no one can say for sure that the shows will go on. CBS would not say Friday when “The Late Show With David Letterman” or “The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn” would return. Neither would ABC pinpoint when “Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher” would resume production, though Maher hoped to be back on the air Monday, doing a show whose format--armchair punditry, part comedic, part serious--makes it far more able to adjust to Tuesday’s tragedy than other late-night talk shows.

On his first show back, Maher said, one of the four guest chairs would remain empty--a tribute to Barbara Olson, the attorney and conservative pundit who was flying to Los Angeles, in part, to tape a “Politically Incorrect” Tuesday when her American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.

Maher planned to eliminate his monologue for the near term. And yet, he remembers “being very surprised in 1995 by how much the audience seemed to want to laugh after the bombing in Oklahoma City.”

“You go through the sadness, the mourning, and at some point you need catharsis, you need release .... The secret is to do it in a way that releases the catharsis.”

“Saturday Night Live” doesn’t have to confront these issues until Sept. 29, when the show’s new season debuts. But Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” which has risen to prominence by parodying political leaders and the news media’s fatuous coverage of world events, faces a tougher predicament. How does a show built to react quickly to the day’s news find a way back to comedy? Tony Fox, the cable network’s spokesman, wouldn’t say when the show would resume production; for now, he said, the network is trying to excise offending footage about President Bush from the reruns Comedy Central is airing.

“It’s crazy, because you’re a show that responds to the world,” said Lizz Winstead, “The Daily Show’s” co-creator and former head writer. “It was something we battled all the time. It seems trivial to make fun of the media coverage. They’ve actually been responsible for the most point.”


On Thursday, Winstead, who performs political satire around the country, canceled a performance this weekend at an arts festival in Minneapolis.

“The key to being a good satirist is being able to take everything in and having facts and being able to comment on the irony of why it happened,” Winstead said from her home in Los Angeles. “That’s what a responsible satirist does. You have to have a perspective. And at this point I can’t think of a single person in the world who has perspective.”

But perspective is no obstacle for Argus Hamilton. It took all of an hour Tuesday for the longtime political comedian (he performs regularly at The Comedy Store in Hollywood) and columnist (Hamilton sells his daily headline-riffing jokes to papers in the South and has a Web site) to start writing jokes about the attacks. Hamilton may not be a satirist in the purest sense, but his specialty is offering instant comedy to the day’s news, however horrific that news may be.

“It was a big day for all the cable news networks,” one of the jokes he wrote Tuesday went. “Fifteen minutes after the attack, the Weather Channel reported that the five-day forecast for Afghanistan is two days.”

At least one paper, the Odessa-American, in Odessa, Texas, received numerous complaints from readers when Hamilton’s column ran Wednesday, said Julie Breaux, the paper’s night city editor. “I agreed,” she added. The paper suspended the column for the time being, she said.

“In a sense I feel like it’s my patriotic duty, just as Bob Hope did during World War II, just as Will Rogers during World War I and Artemus Ward during the Civil War,” said Hamilton of his political humor. “An audience comes together to sing ‘God Bless America.’ An audience can come together to laugh.”


That, says Scott Carter, is why today’s late-night entertainment can serve as the electronic equivalent of USO shows and the Hollywood Canteen. Carter, former executive producer of “Politically Incorrect,” is now developing a series for cable network TNN called “Conspiracy Zone,” a show whose concept--a loose, quippy panel discussion of fears, real and imagined--will now have to change. “The people we’re playing to are different now,” Carter says.

Meanwhile, there are new considerations for plays and rock bands whose names and subject matter now comment hauntingly on the terrorist attacks. A punk band out of Washington, D.C., called Burning Airlines performed as scheduled Thursday night at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles, though the theater’s marquee displayed only “B Airlines,” in apparent deference to the crash victims. The band’s name, said their publicist, Jessica Hopper, is an unfortunate coincidence, since they’re named after a song by Brian Eno.

Thursday and Friday performances of the play “The Man Who Never Yet Saw Woman’s Nakedness,” at the Odyssey Theatre in West L.A., were canceled. In the play, catastrophic events--including the disappearance of the Empire State Building--take place offstage.

Programs for subsequent performances will include a note informing audiences that the play was written four years ago.

Another play, called “Frederick of Prussia/George W’s Dream of Sleep,” currently running at the City Garage theater in Santa Monica, was postponed until Sept. 21.

In the production, an actor playing Bush dozes onstage, wearing a king’s crown, as the play takes the audience through 300 years of human history. Playwright Charles A. Duncombe Jr. says he wrote the piece out of his frustration at the extent to which Bush was disengaging the country from geopolitical issues; at the end of the play, Bush awakes “to a sense of nightmare about what he’s slept through.”


Poignant as his piece might be right now, Duncombe said canceling this weekend’s show was the appropriate decision.

“The first impulse is respect for the tremendous grief and the powerful feelings that events like this stir up,” he said.


Times staff writer Don Shirley contributed to this story.

As the terrorist attacks again proved, TV plays a major role in defining major events. By Brian Lowry. F7