If laughter is the best medicine, what is Cipro?

A group of comics huddles to discuss how Sept. 11 has affected the state of funny in New York.

Pop Culture

October 21, 2001|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,Special to the Sun

NEW YORK -- In the backroom of a chi-chi sushi restaurant situated near ground zero, surrounded by police blockades and groups of tired firefighters walking the streets, a panel of high-profile Gen-X jokesters genuinely discussed the state of funny in a country that's forever changed.

"No Laughing Matter: Comedy Writing in Unfunny Times" was dreamed up by journalism job and community Web site mediabistro.com. And as the evening of audacious questions, answers and the occasional anthrax joke unfolded last Tuesday, there was no question that laughter is still the best medicine -- with a few exceptions.

"Actually, I think Cipro is the best medicine," said host Lynn Harris, a comedian and Glamour magazine columnist, adding: "We'll discuss if that went over the line later."

Laughter erupted often, even though the invisible but pivotal "line" between high-minded war-time humor and unpatriotic, tasteless garbage has become one of the most serious and frustratingly subjective issues for humorists, especially younger ones. Their sarcastic, self-effacing pop sensibilities are being criticized as outdated and shallow now. To some, putting this crisis in any other context besides a straightforward, patriotic package may seem presumptuous and even dangerous.

The speakers admitted to at least feeling a moment of fear for their jobs when their passion (or "irony," at least) was declared dead before anyone took the time to examine it. Is irony being confused with the familiar cynical, self-referential style common among their generation of writers? Just how do they define it?

"It's like rain on your wedding day, a black fly in your chardonnay," suggested drowsy, deadpan comic Todd Barry, reciting verses from Alanis Morissette's un-ironic rock anthem "Ironic."

Regardless, stylish, socially conscious comedy is definitely not dead. In fact, some of the most irreverent sources have risen to the occasion so nimbly since Sept. 11, they're being praised instead of panned, showing that just because their attitude is absurdist doesn't mean there's treason or insensitivity behind it.

Comedy Central's The Daily Show has been lauded for its coverage of "America Freaks Out," and anchor Jon Stewart's satire star is rising. The fitfully funny underground faux newspaper The Onion has caught the attention and commendation of The New York Times. The Times praised its first post-tragedy issue, featuring headlines like "A Shattered Nation Longs to Care about Stupid Bull---- Again," and "Not Knowing What Else to Do, Woman Bakes American Flag Cake."

Immediately after the attacks, the usually stinging Onion staff sort of mellowed out, according to panelist and Onion senior editor Carol Kolb.

"We didn't feel the need to be annoying or snarky. We wanted to express the horror, confusion and sadness," she said. "We were sort of almost wimpy." Even so, she added, "We [still] didn't want to say anything positive about [President] Bush."

That was a common sentiment among attendees. Some said they felt resentment at feeling required to revere President Bush blindly, and at presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer's warning to the media to watch what they say and do.

"When can we make fun of Bush again?" one audience member asked.

You already can, as long as they're not Bush-is-dumb jokes, said Michael Colton, co-founder of political-pop humor Web site modernhumorist.com. "I'm hoping he becomes very fat, so we can do Bush fat jokes."

The post-Sept. 11 attempts at humor by jittery late-night hosts such as Jay Leno and David Letterman were debated by Time magazine humor columnist Joel Stein and Daily Show writer Eric Drysdale.

"I want to defend Jay Leno for a minute," said Drysdale, adding, "It's an unusual position for me to put myself in." He praised Leno for at least daring to make a punchline of Osama bin Laden. Whenever he witnesses it, Drysdale says, he has to admit: "Whoa, Jay Leno is braver than I am today."

"I'm going to go anti-Jay," Stein countered. "It's too easy. It's Andrew Dice Clay stuff. You're not getting laughs because you're clever, you're getting laughs because people are angry."

One audience member pointed out that Leno bashed the Taliban before it was fashionable. But from the hoots and hollers accompanying most of the night's Leno-bashings, it was clear most in the room felt The Tonight Show host would be a loser in war or peace.

That may sum up the night's essential message: Humor that was worthwhile before Sept. 11 will remain so, and maybe even improve, while humor that should have apologized for itself before all this will become extinct.

No matter what the climate of the times, in a country where freedom of comedy is practiced, the bottom line is believing in the work and its power, the humorists agreed.

"Stand behind what you do!" Drysdale encouraged his colleagues, rousing the room.

"Yeah," Colton chimed in. "We do stupid stuff, but a lot of people do stupid stuff."

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