Punch lines carry softer punch in wake of attack

People say they are now ready to laugh. I want to ask the audience something: Then what are you doing HERE?

- Craig Kilborn, "The Late Show"

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said it to CBS late-night jester David Letterman. Sen. John McCain said it to NBC's Jay Leno. Culture critic Frank Rich said it to Comedy Central's Jon Stewart. Three weeks after the attack on America, the message has come often and in pleading tones: "The country needs you to go back to being funny."

Behind America's outward-focused obsession with national response - from combating terrorism abroad to assuring safety at home - a more inward-looking question is emerging for those who analyze the national psyche through the lens of popular culture: Will being "funny" in America ever be the same?

"This may be the event which historians look back to as the beginning of a new era of sensitivity, introspection, and growth," says George Schlatter, producer of America's No. 1 hit in the 1960s, "Laugh In," and creator of the American Comedy Awards. "It could produce new styles, new textures, and new subjects."

Some social historians say America is in for no more than a temporary period of cultural mourning, in which comics will adopt a brief moratorium on certain topics from belittling politicians to demonizing foreigners.

But others believe the issue of permissible humor amid national trauma goes even deeper than it might at first appear. What is acceptable and reliable fodder for mainstream satire, sarcasm, cynicism, and nihilism (a "nothing matters" attitude) says much about what a society accepts and rejects as core values. And such values change.

"The history of comedy in America shows us there are seismic shifts over what the culture thinks is acceptable and what is not," says Lawrence Mintz, director of the Center for Humor Studies at the University of Maryland. Such shifts are often so gradual that they go unnoticed except over the arc of time.

Yeah, people in New York are bending over backward to be nice to each other after the tragedy. Today I saw a store clerk helping a shoplifter out to the car with her bags.

- David Letterman

Twenty-five years ago, the Dean Martin comedy roasts made regular fun of drinking, womanizing, and bigotry. But through decades-long efforts of such organizations as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and gains in the women's movement and civil rights, such jokes are no longer the core grist of mainstream comics. "You don't hear comics talk so much about these now because they were jokes that were acceptable 20 years ago but not now," says Mr. Mintz.

But the seeds of a new shift can sometimes be traced to cataclysmic events, and such a shift may be starting now, if only gradually. "This event throws a real bucket of water on America's level of irony that has flourished from the late 1970s until now," says Robert Thompson, head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. America's relative physical security and good economic times have allowed the luxury of broad entitlement to poke fun at the system that produced them. "We now have a situation that could throw that long-entrenched attitude into decline," he says.

What a culture finds funny can also reflect the inner strength of a nation and its leaders, how open that country is to self-examination, and how willing it is to scrutinize its own underbelly, and shadow motivations.

"This is a cataclysmic enough event that it could start that shift where a society like ours begins to examine things it hasn't thought too much about, such as the Muslim faith or Arab Americans," says Edward Fink, a communications professor at California State University, Fullerton.

Eventually, that could lead to new views of humor about racial profiling, demonizing foreigners and their leaders, and making fun of American politicians.

"Can we be funny?"

"Why start now?"

- Mr. Giuliani, responding to a question from Lorne Michaels of "Saturday Night Live"

Though some believe all this is just part of a temporary period of mourning, a new sensitivity was certainly evident in the tender days after the attack.

As with the nonentertainment world's worry that day-to-day living will never be quite the same, many late-night comics worried aloud that their jobs would never be the same. Letterman, Leno, Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart - all made serious speeches to their audiences, almost apologizing for the inconsequential nature of what they do.

Letterman discarded his usual monologue for a personal message of sadness and then shared tears with Dan Rather. Mr. O'Brien even warned young people to never become cynical.

"Saturday Night Live," too, kept its usual irreverence in check. At the show's season premiere two nights ago, Mayor Giuliani, flanked by two dozen police, fire, and rescue personnel, gave a brief opening speech. He talked about heroes meeting the "worst of humanity with the best of humanity."

Security is tight everywhere. At the K-Mart kiddie plane ride, kids have to arrive three hours early and show identification.

- Jay Leno

Within days, though, the mood lightened considerably. Leno poked fun at the former vice president. ("The FBI has detained an overweight, unemployed bearded man. It turned out to be Al Gore.") And Leno was back to listing goofy headlines or ads, such as a desktop shredder that claims to handle top-secret documents but is shown shredding a grocery list.

Still, many writers say this is the time to reconsider the craft entirely. "For a lot of us, irony had long ago been reduced to a cynicism whose well had pretty much run dry," says Mo Rocca, a correspondent for Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." "This will force us to experiment with new tones, with new kinds of funny."

"It's certainly possible to be funny without being sarcastic," Mr. Rocca adds. "And it is certainly possible to be ironic without sneering or allowing base sarcasm or just plain meanness to pass for irony."

Whether America's current self-examination on everything from late-night comedy to international cooperation is long or short-lived, one thing is certain: Humor will return, in one form or another.

"Watch for the license we give to humorists over time," says Mintz. "If this trend of world events continues and people continue to feel as vulnerable as they do now, there will definitely be a change in the nature, centrality, and acceptance of humor."

Everyone in New York is turning patriotic. Today I went into Rupert G's [restaurant] and ordered takeout soup, and when I got it back to my desk, the cockroaches had spelled out, "USA."

- Letterman

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