NEW YORK – Facing a nation rocked by recent tragedy, Saturday Night Live blinked.
Typically irreverent, often defiantly rude in its comedy, the long-running NBC sketch series opened with a tribute to the victims and heroes of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Then it ducked the tragedy and anything else topical for most of its season premiere Saturday.
In a "cold opening," New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani stood on the show's familiar set with some two dozen police, fire and rescue personnel.
"On our city's darkest day, our heroes met the worst of humanity with the best of humanity," said Giuliani. "Our hearts are broken, but they are beating, and they are beating stronger than ever."
Then, after Paul Simon sang "The Boxer," his classic anthem of pain and courage, Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels greeted the special guests.
"Saturday Night Live is one of our great New York City institutions," replied Giuliani, who has urged New Yorkers to return to normal life, "so that's why it's important for you to do your show tonight."
"Can we be funny?" Michaels asked him.
"Why start now?" cracked Giuliani with perfect timing. It was the night's funniest line.
Most of the remaining program, whose guest host was actress Reese Witherspoon, stuck to off-the-rack comedy that could have been written months or years ago.
Skits topics included a flatulent infant, a retelling of The Little Mermaid as sexually promiscuous, and celebrity Jeopardy with impersonations of Anne Heche, Sean Connery and Chris Tucker.
Nowhere to be seen: President George W. Bush, popularly portrayed as intellectually deficient by SNL regular Will Ferrell.
In an interview earlier in the week, Michaels noted the difficulty of dealing sensitively with a disaster that left thousands missing and the nation on edge.
He pledged that SNL would treat the attacks "in an emotional way, because that's the appropriate way," seeming to forget that well-tuned satire can steer clear of guffaws and ridicule to make a heart-rending point.
Only during its spoof newscast Weekend Update did SNL address the tragedy with humor, in the form of several mild-mannered "reports":
— Prime suspect Usama bin Laden is thought to be hiding out in "places remote and barren, where he is unlikely to encounter others" — namely, in theaters showing the new Mariah Carey flop Glitter.
— An organized crime spokesman responded to charges that the Mafia stole scrap metal from the Twin Towers ruins by saying, "Hey, dah mayor TOLD us to go back to work!"
Then "anchors" Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey appealed to viewers to contribute to the Twin Towers relief fund as a toll-free number appeared on the screen. They weren't joking.
Taking a more confrontational approach to the current crisis, the online version of humor magazine The Onion got record readership this week with its "Attack on America" issue.
Headlines from the parody newspaper included "U.S. Vows To Defeat Whoever It Is We're At War With," "God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule" and "Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell."
The number of visitors to the Onion Web site last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday exceeded 1,000,000, eclipsing its average weekly number of 950,000 readers, according to Jason Dinkelmann, Internet business coordinator of the Madison, Wisc.-based Onion.
"What The Onion is trying to do is express some of the things its readers are already thinking about the tragedy, but in a funny way," Dinkelmann said.