WHENEVER THERE’S a tragedy, comedians are presented with a dilemma: When is the right time to make jokes about it, and what kind of jokes can you make? I vividly remember watching Johnny Carson every year on Lincoln’s birthday, doing assassination jokes. (My favorite was about Lincoln’s birthday stripper, “Freda Slaves.” According to Johnny, “Every guy took a shot at her in the balcony; four scored and seven came close.”) When the jokes bombed, he’d comment to Ed McMahon: “Too soon.”
I know something about “too soon,” because it was only six days after 9/11 when I got into all sorts of trouble with the country and the White House for saying that sticking with a suicide mission, as the terrorists had done, was not, strictly speaking, “cowardly,” and that, in fact, “we have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away.” Of course, by “we,” I meant American society as a whole, but it was not hard for people who never liked me to begin with to pretend that I was calling the military cowardly. I wasn’t.
In fact, I was just trying to follow orders. Right after 9/11, President Bush said the terrorists would win if we didn’t go back to doing exactly what we were doing before the attack, and so the best way to show we were victorious was to not change a thing. And, like an idiot, I believed him, resuming my mandate to never pull a punch and live up to the title of my show at the time, “Politically Incorrect.”
But the atmosphere in the fall of 2001 allowed for very little beyond singing “God Bless America” and buying a flag to put on your gas-guzzling, terrorist-funding car. In fact, I was not the only one whose comments helped flood the ABC switchboard in the first day or two after the attacks. Peter Jennings had the temerity to suggest that some presidents are more reassuring than others in situations of crisis. Stone him! Kill him! How dare he suggest that our president might be anything but perfect at everything! We have been attacked; ipso facto, our president is a genius!
Which lasted until about the end of the year, as I recall. I measure it by when Jay Leno, the man who really has his finger on America’s pulse, went back to doing “Bush is stupid” jokes. Or, as we refer to it in comedy, “bread and butter.”
But that fall we were all trying. I remember offering up the hope that perhaps George W. Bush would be like Shakespeare’s Henry V, who started life as a callow lush called Prince Hal and emerged in wartime as the matured and victorious Henry V.
Oh well, so much for analogies. But now that the president has said that he’s read “three Shakespeares,” maybe he’ll take the hint.
I always felt that in the months after 9/11, while “Politically Incorrect” was still on the air but struggling for sponsors and referred to, not inaccurately, as “Dead Show Walking,” we did some of our best work. The country had decided it was going to try to be a little bit serious for a while, and that liberated us to book guests with more gravitas and less Pauly Shore. In addition, I found it liberating to go through the fire of being fired and then realize afterward that there was a whole half a country out there that did not think truth was like wine: It does not get better with age. “Don Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news immediately,” Tom Hagen says in “The Godfather.” I agree.
A couple of years ago, a congressman named Bachus from East Jesus, Ala., tried to get some traction nationally by demanding that HBO, the network I’m with now, fire me for saying of the U.S. military’s recruitment problems that “we’ve picked all the low-lying Lynndie England fruit.”
But by 2004, that dog wasn’t hunting even a little. Even my detractors knew that I was just keeping it real and not attacking our troops. And it helped that, a few weeks later, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, that Patton of the Gulf War and former drug czar, said basically the same thing: “We’re reaching the bottom of the barrel.”
Which just goes to show you: Where do left and right meet? At the truth.