NEW YORK — Late-night comics found a few things to laugh about in the racially charged arrest of a Harvard professor — once beer was added to the equation.
President Barack Obama's invitation to the two men involved to hoist a few at the White House on Thursday opened the comedy floodgates. Before that, the late-night TV world dominated by white comics largely stayed away from the subject of Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s confrontation at his home with white police officer Joseph Crowley.
"Alcohol usually cools things off — have you noticed that?" CBS' David Letterman said on Tuesday night.
Letterman joked that Vice President Joe Biden has already been put to work buying a keg for the meeting.
"If it goes well, then President Obama is going to invite (South Carolina) Gov. and Mrs. Sanford to come up and have a beer," he said.
Jokes have started to bomb
NBC's "Tonight" show host Conan O'Brien said that if the White House meeting works out, "Obama is going to have Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu over for Jager bombs."
Since O'Brien and his NBC late-night colleague, Jimmy Fallon, both have audiences with a concentration of young men, beer was something they could appreciate. "How cool is that?" Fallon said.
"They'll come over, one beer will lead to two, two will lead to nine, next thing you know everyone will forget that they were ever mad at each other," he said. "They'll start doing Jager shots out of Betsy Ross' thimble. They'll make prank phone calls on the Red Phone. Someone will be like, `Let's TP the Capitol building!'"
Video: Gates demands apology after arrest But none of the comics had addressed the topic in their monologues until the invitation from Obama.
Gates was arrested July 16 for disorderly conduct after a 911 call reported two men on Gates front porch and a possible break-in. Gates' arrest in his own home by a white police officer sparked a national debate over racial profiling and police conduct. The controversy intensified when Obama said police "acted stupidly" when they arrested his friend. The charge was later dropped.
Gates, director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, has said he was outraged and has demanded an apology from Crowley; Crowley said he followed protocol and responded to Gates' "tumultuous behavior" appropriately.
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Obama's apology followed by beer invitation
Obama, the nation's first black president, has said he chose his words badly when he reacted to his friend's arrest, and extended his invitation to Crowley and Gates for a chat at the White House over brewskis.
Humor is often the best way to deal with sticky situations, comic D.L. Hughley said Wednesday.
"I've never been one to ask permission to tell a joke," he said. "It's kind of false humility to pretend like you don't want to say something when we do. What it says is that we are still a country that is licking its wounds."
Hughley doesn't believe the Gates incident was a case of racial profiling, and thought it wouldn't have escalated if the professor had known one of his neighbors had called the police. He also doesn't think it will be a lasting issue.
"If Al Sharpton ain't marching, then it ain't a big deal," he said.
Stewart, Colbert took shots last week
Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were quicker to the story last week, but talked around the edges. Stewart targeted the media for spending so much time on Obama's initial remark about how Cambridge, Mass., police had reacted during the incident.
Colbert noted that police had dropped charges on Gates even though "he committed the perfect crime, robbing his own home. Think about it. He knew exactly when he wouldn't be home."
Stewart's "The Daily Show" also talked about the incident on Tuesday, poking fun at Obama for an awkward attempt to dial back from his original characterization of Crowley's actions.
Comedy Central also flew in Larry Wilmore from California, identified as the show's "senior black correspondent," for the most direct jokes at Gates' expense on late-night TV.
He showed a picture of the stocky professor and asked, "What's his black anthem? We shall overeat?"
Wilmore noted that Gates had said "yo mama" during his confrontation with Crowley.
"How many decades has he been holding that in?" Wilmore said. "Did he call him a jive turkey, too?"
Wilmore did have one thing in common with white comics: He couldn't resist a beer joke.
"Alcohol — that'll end well," he said. "Booze isn't how you resolve a racial conflict. It's how you start one."
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