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After Katrina, the laughs start to return

In the storm's aftermath, comedians wade into a still-touchy subject
/ Source: The Associated Press

The joke rattled through e-mails across the country even as lives hung in the balance after Hurricane Katrina: What’s President Bush’s position on Roe vs. Wade?

Answer: He doesn’t care how people get out of New Orleans.

The shock and sadness that muted comedians after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks hasn’t been repeated four years later, largely due to some easy targets. This time, joking about a tragedy comes as a welcome relief from the pain, tension and emotion.

“The anger that fuels comedy has built up,” said Stephen Hill, executive producer of the upcoming BET comedy awards. “We fully expect Katrina to become part of the comic lexicon of the show.”

BET gave only a “fleeting thought” of canceling the show, which airs Sept. 27. And producers of Sunday’s Emmy Awards — which was postponed after 9/11 — promise a mix of laughs and calls to help victims, hosted by comedian and New Orleans native Ellen DeGeneres.

Comedy can help heal a nation’s wounds, said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. He likened it to “a sorbet to cleanse the palate.”

“People watch four or five hours of coverage of a very sad story. Humor has always been a way to smooth that over,” Thompson said. “It’s one of the ways you can process things.”

Risky businessFour years ago, comedian Gilbert Gottfried famously learned the perils of puncturing the national mood. Three weeks after the terrorist attacks, he was speaking at a Friar’s Club roast of Hugh Hefner and joked that he had to leave early to catch a plane to Los Angeles.

He couldn’t get a direct flight, he said, so he had to make a stop at the Empire State building.

He heard a collective gasp. Someone shouted out, “Too soon!” Gottfried retreated by telling the filthy, hoary joke immortalized in the current movie “The Aristocrats.”

“I had to go into safe territory,” he said, “like incest and bestiality.”

After 9/11, entertainment briefly stood still then. The Emmy Awards were postponed and people talked about the death of irony.

It didn’t die. It was just stunned.

“With (Katrina), it’s almost like the sequel that doesn’t live up to the original,” Gottfried said. “It’s certainly a shocking event and a tragedy, but somehow as a big event it doesn’t seem to carry as much weight with the public as 9/11 did.”

That day was sudden and unfathomable. The attacks’ terrifying randomness affected people in all walks of life — every American could relate to the victims. The Katrina story, however, built up over several days. It also particularly hurt one class of people, which may play a subtle part in the reaction, Thompson said.

Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” came back from a vacation after Katrina with guns blazing at Bush. In 2001, the show went off the air for a week.

Late-night blitzMost of the late-night TV comics’ barbs have been directed at the Bush administration.

When told it was going to take 80 days to drain flood water out of New Orleans, Conan O’Brien joked that Bush said, “that’s almost half a vacation.” Jay Leno said the Federal Emergency Management Agency head recently appeared at his doorstep and said, “I’m here for the earthquake damage you had back in ’94.”

As Hurricane Ophelia neared North Carolina, David Letterman said that “the Bush administration is getting ready to ignore it.”

“One thing that made this comic territory was that there was very quickly somebody they could go after, and somebody they could go after in a separate, safe kind of way,” Thompson said.

Any notion of taboos crumbled when comic D.L. Hughley, on his late-night Comedy Central show last weekend, took on looters who had stolen electronic equipment in a flooded city with no power.

“What are you going to do with a 42-inch plasma TV? Drag it to the roof?” he said. “Take me back! I forgot my remote!”

He also noted how many New Orleans residents were religious, and chose to stay behind while putting their faith in God: “Sometimes God sends the weatherman to say there’s a Level 5 hurricane. Sometimes Al Roker is God.”

'The ironic things'Hughley, who is black, can get away with jokes that would raise eyebrows if told by white comedians. In an interview, he said one of his staff members had asked if it was too soon to laugh at Katrina.

“That’s sort of a silly question,” Hughley said. “Day 15 is too soon, but Day 16 is all right?”

Ten years ago, Hughley said, he participated in a Harvard University seminar on comedy with Robert Klein and Joan Rivers. The question was posed: was there any subject they considered out of bounds for comedy?

Yes, Klein replied. There had just been a flood in India that had killed thousands of people. He saw nothing funny about that.

Rivers piped up: “I just want to know. Who got all the jewelry?”

Hughley filed that away as a lesson.

“The event itself, of course it’s not funny,” he said. “It’s the ironic things around it that everyone can relate to.”