On way to front, it's cheap laugh every minute


January 15, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

They started to sell the T-shirts last week. The war clouds loomed, and the T-shirts appeared with Saddam Hussein's scowling face, and the name-line said: So-Damn Insane.

Get it? This is how Americans face crises now: not merely by whistling past the graveyard, but by turning everything into a possibility for a punch line.

Don't know the issues in the Persian Gulf? Yeah, but how about this guy Saddam? The president called him another Hitler. (Col. Muammar el Kadafi to Hussein: "Don't listen to them, Saddam. I knew Hitler. Hitler was a friend of mine. And Saddam, you're no Hitler.")

If we remember the Dan Quayle reference, it's a funny line. Funny lines get us past the tediousness of having to remember why we're on the brink of war instead of still talking. Don't exactly know why we're not talking? Yeah, but how about this guy So-Damn Insane?

In a nation that no longer has an attention span, jokes become shorthand for a point of view. Sound bites -- You think Hitler references aren't calculated TV sound bites? -- become substitutes for debate. The punch lines are shared defense mechanisms, something to distance us a little from the approaching menace. If enough people laugh along with us, maybe we can win the war by ridicule.

In such an atmosphere, T-shirts become part of the war effort. Dart games with Saddam Hussein's face on the target enter the marketplace. Sweat shirts dot the landscape with scatological messages under Hussein's picture. A nation marches to the brink of war focused clearly on a single man as enemy, but a little fuzzy on exactly what we should do as long as we're over there.

At some local clubs, the T-shirts are sold on So-Damn Insane Nights. Are we having too good a time here? Was Hitler a marketing tool during World War II? During Vietnam we had war humor, but it mostly involved Lyndon Johnson.

This time around, we have Saddam Hussein on T-shirts that sell for $10. Some of the proceeds will go to Desert Shield support groups, families of those serving in the Persian Gulf area. The shirts are on sale at 15 Baltimore bars and restaurants. More support for families comes from the So-Damn Insane Nights. More laughter to get past the war clouds.

Also, more distance between ourselves and reality: If they're making jokes, can we really be going to war? Distance gives us courage. Sure, people get hurt if there's fighting, but we make deals with ourselves: Thank heavens no bombs will fall in our neighborhood. Thank heavens it's mostly a bunch of foreigners who will suffer. Thank heavens nobody in our family is over there.

And anyway, didn't Congress back the president's intent to make war? Well, yeah, but of course, only two members of Congress have their own kids stationed over there. Congress plays its own mind games.

And so we laugh at Saddam Hussein's glowering image, and we chuckle our way to the brink of fighting.

"We're not projecting a pro-war position or an anti-war position," says Linda Klopp of Gemini Productions, the Charles Street graphic design firm that produced the So-Damn Insane T-shirts. "We're just giving a hurrah to our military people and their families."

Klopp's honest enough to admit mixed feeling about her own work. The line evolved last August, out of her husband's inability to rememberHussein's name. She suggested the play on words, and it turned into a tag line. But it's getting a little late in the game now for ridicule. Too many lives are on the line. What was funny in the sunlight of August, you might choke on at midnight in January.

And yet . . .

"I wear the shirt, and people say, 'Wow, it's a put-down of Hussein, right? That's excellent,' " she said yesterday, 24 hours before George Bush's ultimatum to Saddam Hussein. "I took it to Annapolis the other night, to a Chamber of Commerce legislative reception. People went crazy. They thought it was hysterical.

"Personally, I thought it might be a little too late. It's too serious now. But you know how it is. People in embarrassing situations tend to laugh. People in frightening situations laugh. This is extremely frightening. So people laugh."

Also, though, they have begun to hold their breath. Klopp says she talks to the people in the Desert Shield support groups and senses their anxiety. She says the money is geared toward helping them.

"I've seen how devastating this is," she says. "I tried to imagine what it feels like. I get a lump in my throat. Like, my god, it's absolutely horrendous, and this guy's insane to do what he's doing, just insane."

She is beginning to echo her own T-shirt: So-Damned Insane. It's a language people can understand today: It's not too long to tax our attention spans. It's funny. And it helps us skirt the troubling stuff, like the value of talking vs. fighting, while we make ridicule and T-shirts a part of the war effort.

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