Late-Night Jokers Find the Lighter Side of War

Troops are fighting outside Baghdad. Saddam Hussein's whereabouts are unknown. The country is on orange alert. So what is there to laugh about?

Plenty, if you watch the late-night talk shows.

Comedians like David Letterman, Jay Leno and Jon Stewart must tip-toe through a minefield of current events in these times of war, poking fun at everything from anti-war celebrities to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

"They walk a very fine line," said J. Max Robins, senior editor and columnist at TV Guide. "They are constantly questioning, 'Is this in good taste?'"

And while the comics try not to alienate their audience with offensive jokes, they also know that watered-down humor would be even more deadly.

"The best humor has some honesty at its core. That may offend some people's sensibilities," said Robins. "But these guys are very sophisticated. They have their antennas out there to gauge what the mood of the country is."

On the Daily Show Monday night, one segment was devoted to gags about Hollywood's peaceniks. "Celebrities are a threat that can't be ignored," the voiceover said. "And it's not just the A-list we have to worry about."

In the skit, the answer to stamping out anti-war stars is a "We Are the World"-like song called "Celebrities Shut Up."

But perhaps even funnier than dissing celebrities is lambasting public officials and the enemy, according to Robins.

"Skewering people in power is always a safe bet," he said.

In Letterman's first opening monologue after several weeks off the air, he referenced both the war in Iraq, which at the time the media said was stymied, and his recent bout with shingles.

"I had this, it's called the shingles," Letterman said. "Boy, those things are painful. Thirty days it took me to get over the shingles – and according to Donald Rumsfeld, that's right on schedule!"

Leno, meanwhile, has made Saddam a frequent butt of his jokes.

"There are now reports that Saddam Hussein was injured in the initial bombing and he's now receiving medical care in an underground bunker," Leno said recently. "He asked his doctors if he was going to live, and they told him, 'Oh yeah, absolutely, you'll live. Until the Americans get here – then you're screwed.'"

"There's such great stuff to make fun of," said Lynette Rice, senior writer for Entertainment Weekly, who cited backlash against the French and Saddam jokes as some of the most popular.

But with soldiers facing the biggest challenge of the war yet in Baghdad, what will comedians do if the list of casualties mounts, as President Bush has warned?

"I would think they'd have to pull back," Rice speculated. "But actually, the great thing about some of these comedians like Dennis Miller, Chris Rock and Letterman, is that they find some deft ways to make light of a situation."

Rice added, however, that the late-night funnymen are experienced enough not to cross the line while American men and women are in danger.

"These guys have some class too," she said. "They'll know when to say when."

Cracking wise in troubled times isn't new, of course. Comedians from Bob Hope to the Smothers Brothers have joked through many wars.

During Operation Desert Storm, Bob Hope quipped, "They say Saddam Hussein is in hiding. They don't know where he is. They've even sent bloodhounds looking for him. Elvis has been easier to spot."

And during the same period, Johnny Carson made fun of the barrage of military talking heads on TV. "Now, every network organization has a retired military expert," he said. "Last night, Dan Rather had Colonel Klink on from Hogan's Heroes."

So no matter how intense the fighting gets, the kings of comedy won't ignore world events, according to Robins.

"They have to talk about these things that are in the headlines," he said. "That's part of the expectation of the audience. That's part of the draw."