WASHINGTON - Faster than a speeding bullet, more rapier-like than Jay Leno's monologues, more widespread than Saddam Hussein's relatives, the dark-humor machine in America is whirring away.
It always happens. No disaster is too awful, no tragedy too painful, to withstand America's need to make a joke. The Internet has only encouraged this trait. Within minutes of a Challenger, a Columbia, an international moment of horror, or the start of war, the same joke is on the East Coast, the West Coast, and points in between.
Whether it's a safety valve or a morbid foray beyond the bounds, America has to sneak out to the hall to have a laugh, as the prim sit-com TV producer played by Mary Tyler Moore dissolved into laughter at the funeral of Chuckles the clown. Some think it's a way of coping with the absurdity, cruelty, and paradoxes of life.
Yet the tenor of such jokes these days is unusually tame. Humor still abounds, but so far it's milder than many historical spates of black humor.
For months, in brilliant color, a movie poster has made the rounds fashioned after a hybrid of Star Wars: Attack of the Clone and Gone With the Wind with swashbuckling, fervid portrayals of George Bush (Rhett Butler), Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice (Scarlet O'Hara), Saddam Hussein, and Colin Powell reprising their roles from the first episode. “Coming soon: ‘Gulf Wars: Episode II. Clone of the Attack.'''
Another picture popping up in everyone's e-mail shows President Bush on a cell phone in the Oval Office talking to Saddam Hussein against the backdrop of bomb damage in Baghdad. Mr. Bush is saying, “Can you hear me NOW?''
Pollster John Zogby thinks black humor may be less mordant now because Americans are watching the war unfold on TV morning, noon, and night, in a tense, close-up way they've never seen before. The soldiers - on both sides - are impossibly young, interviewed in trenches, in sand storms, right after being shot. The victims include children. Saddam is brutally callous about throwing his people in harm's way.
In this atmosphere, anti-French jokes are safest. Having blocked a U.S. resolution in the United Nations supporting the war, France is taking a beating from American comedians. A generation of American children may always think of the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.''
Mr. Leno, king of the late-night TV circuit, observed, “Did you see the new bomb the government came up with? It weighs 21,000 pounds. The Air Force tested this bomb in Florida and the bomb blast was so strong, at Disney World, 25 French tourists surrendered.''
Dennis Miller said, “The only way the French are going in is if we tell them we found truffles in Iraq.”
The irrepressible Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live noted, “In protest of France's opposition to a U.S. war on Iraq, the U.S. Congress' cafeteria has changed french fries and french toast to ‘freedom fries' and ‘freedom toast.' Afterwards, the congressmen were so pleased with themselves, they all started freedom kissing each other. In a related story, in France, American cheese is now referred to as ‘idiot cheese.'”
Comics are wary of being too critical of Mr. Bush or the war effort, fearing a backlash from viewers would hurt ratings. So they couch jokes at easier targets. When one of the Dixie Chicks made a disparaging remark about the President and the war, the outcry against her was huge, possibly career-busting. For comics it was a field day. Mr. Bush's war coalition is growing, Leno said, since he lined up the support of two of the Dixie Chicks.
It falls to less mainstream comedians to tell jokes that raise eyebrows. But even they are wary of being too harsh on the president. Craig Kilborn went about as far as he could when he said, “Good news for Iraq. There's a 50 percent chance that President Bush will confuse it with Iran.”
The comics also find safe humor is directed at “the system.” Leno said, “President Bush announced today we will rebuild Iraq after the war. You think that will happen? Hey, we still haven't rebuilt South Central (Los Angeles) after the riots.”
But jokes, according to Mr. Leno, must knock the establishment a little. For example: “War continues in Iraq. They're calling it Operation Iraqi Freedom. They were going to call it Operation Iraqi Liberation until they realized that spells OIL.”
Mr. Bush, too, uses humor to lighten the tension. He and top aides were meeting in the White House situation room, questioning Gen. Tommy Franks, who is in Qatar to command the troops and maneuver the technology he says will make this war different from others. Trying to answer a question, General Franks couldn't find the right button on the teleconference panel. Mr. Bush quipped, “Don't worry, Tommy. I haven't lost faith in you.”