LOS ANGELES – Many of America’s leading comedians — from Conan O’Brien and Jon Stewart to Tina Fey, Louis C.K. and Bill Maher — expressed comradeship with the murdered victims in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris.
O’Brien said on his TBS show that “in this country, we just take it for granted that it’s our right to poke fun at the untouchable or the sacred." A clearly shaken Stewart, discussing free speech on “The Daily Show,” noted that comedy “shouldn’t have to be” an act of courage. Fey said during a promotional press conference at the Television Critics Association that free speech “absolutely must be defended.”
Louis C.K wore a red shirt with Charlie Hebdo's name emblazoned on the back during his performance at Madison Square Garden in New York. Maher bluntly referred to Wednesday's massacre as being “like Groundhog Day, except if the groundhog kept getting his head cut off.”
But can — and should — America's comedians do more than voice their condolences and affirm the right to free speech? And if they can, then what?
“Comedians like Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien have attacked the terrorists and the act of violence using very serious tones,” communications expert Glenn Selig of Selig Multimedia told FOX411. “Since the attacks were perpetrated on a satirical newspaper, the terror has rattled comedians to the core.
“When a comedian is serious, there is little more powerful. Even if they wanted to joke about it, a terrorist act perpetrated against people who dared to poke fun hits very close to home for comedians, so it may be difficult, if not impossible, to even entertain the idea of making light about such a tragedy.”
Kamal Nawash, a lawyer and founder of the anti-terrorism organization Free Muslims Coalition, said the media and leading entertainment and comedy industry figures need to stand boldly for free speech.
“All newspapers must show solidarity by printing the vilest parodies against Islam so that the criminals who oppose freedom of speech will know that their intimidation will never pay off,” said Nawash, who describes himself as a conservative Muslim.
“Even if the parodies will make me feel uncomfortable as a Muslim, it must be done so that the criminal terrorists will know that they will not succeed. The parodies must be done to protect freedom of speech, and it must be done to honor the memory of the martyrs (French journalists) who were killed for exercising their God-given freedom of thought.”
American comedians — with the exception of a few, including Dennis Miller and Maher — have rarely parodied or poked fun at the Muslim religion.
“Islam is treated better in the United States than any other religion,” said Dan Gainor, vice president of business and culture at the Media Research Center. “Imagine liberal comedians like Sarah Silverman doing a comedy routine about having sex with Allah, or Wanda Sykes making jokes about the age of Muhammad's child bride.
“Such comments rarely happen. But jokes bashing every aspect of Christianity in foul ways happen constantly, and Christians don’t go on killing sprees as a result.”
But Gainor added that it’s unfair to expect comedians to lead the free speech effort, even though the murders of the Charlie Hebdo satirists are particularly jarring for a group whose livelihood is founded on making fun of social and political issues.
“That’s something that should be handled by nations and major media outlets,” Gainor said. “Major media in both news and entertainment need to stand together. Instead of cowering, we need to stand up for free — even offensive — speech.”