Writers for 'SNL,' 'The Daily Show,' 'Jimmy
Kimmel Live,' ' Late Night with Conan O'Brien' and 'Tough Crowd'
host Colin Quinn talk about the day-to-day challenges of creating
topical, humorous monologues and sketches during the three weeks
of war with Iraq.
April 12 -- The producers of "Saturday
Night Live" thought they had the perfect opening skit. The
cast was still rehearsing it on Friday, April 4, the end of a
week in which the war in Iraq seemed like it might drag on for
months and military analysts began using "bogged down"
to desribe U.S. troop movements. "Remember how every day
Washington kept saying, 'Really, we're just 50 miles outside
Baghdad'," says "SNL" head writer Dennis McNicholas.
"We wanted to get at that."
The writers drew up a sketch about Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's overconfidence. In the skit, Darrell
Hammond, as Rummy, invites National Security Adviser Condi Rice
(played by Maya Rudolph) and Secretary of State Colin Powell (Dean
Edwards) to his house to relax by watching the "Maid in Manhattan"
DVD on his new home-entertainment system. His guests show up,
but Rummy can't get the technology to work. "This should
only be a minute, it will be a cake walk," he says. "Donald,
it seems like you're getting bogged down with that," one
of them offers. "No, no, I'm on schedule, I'm on schedule,"
But by late Friday night, the news about the
war had changed so dramatically -- U.S. forces had seized Saddam
International Airport and the Marines had pulled close to the
eastern edge of Baghda -- that the piece became irrelevant. "It
had been funny 36 hours before," says McNicholas. "But
then it just made no sense at all." The opening skit was
Such are the pitfalls of producing humor while
the country's at war. Whether TV's sketch comedy shows and mock-news
programs are live, taped, produced daily or weekly, the writers
behind the laughs have not only had to keep up with the news,
they've had to monitor the mood of the country to make sure what
they write is appropriate. "We're always operating with the
knowledge that Saddam might gas 5,000 people a few hours from
now," says McNicholas.
Sometimes the shows have offended. Sometimes
they haven't offended enough. "As a comedian, you're supposed
to see the bulls--t in everything," says Colin Quinn, whose
new show, "Tough Crowd," features four stand-up comics
talking about current events. During the first week of the war,
Quinn said on the air, "We're not just dropping leaflets
over Baghdad, we're also dropping comment cards. 'Would you say
your country goes to war always, often, sometimes, rarely or never?'"
Quinn says he's made fun on his show of both Peter Arnett ("Has
he ever given you any indication he's this big patriot?")
and Michael Moore ("He's Michael Moore -- if he didn't
say something like that at the Oscars, people would have been
Quinn has spent some time monitoring the show's
message boards. "Sometimes you get an Arab saying comedians
make fun of Muslims too much. Then someone else says you should
make fun of them." He says his show gets more complaints
about how they've handled non-war issues like ethnicity and religion
than about the war itself. Where does Quinn draw the line when
it comes to humor? "You don't joke around about POWs,"
he says. "That stuff makes me sick and I don't find humor
in it." The Elizabeth Smart story, however, was an okay target.
"All the channels were fighting for her story and we made
fun of the different ways each of the networks would do it,"
he says. "Comedy comes from some kind of truth, and going
along with that is a good thing."
For the writing staff at "Late Night with
Conan O'Brien," it's been pretty much business as usual since
the war began, says the show's head writer. "Our approach
hasn't been that different than before," says Mike Sweeney.
"Of course we've had long discussions about what's going
on, and we're all strongly affected. But once that's done, it's
like, 'OK, what are we gonna put on the show?' It's the same considerations
we always had. You try to figure out whether something will work
A few examples: The "Conan" writers
dreamed up a Saddam Hussein look-alike -- he had a moustache,
but he was also African-American. On a different day, producers
hired a National Geographic voice-over guy to do a segment about
an animal called "the Geraldo, which crawls through caves."
The show's writers found their own retired general for the show,
since "every network had one commenting on the war,"
says Sweeney. The "Conan" general sits in an office
with a map of Iraq behind him, but offers slightly senile expertise
on topics like The Hair Club for Men and his "lady-friend."
Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon
Stewart" rose to prominence in 2000 for its satirical coverage
of the Bush-Gore non-election. "While those were serious
times, they weren't life and death like it is now," says
head writer Ben Karlin, who says that while the last three weeks
of "Daily Shows" have been funny, "they haven't
been as fun to make." The show tapes around 6:30 p.m. every
afternoon and then is broadcast later that evening. "During
those weird last few days before the war began, we had a sense
that we're putting this in the can, but by the time it airs, we
could be at war," he says.
Once the war started, the writers sat around
every day, discussing "our feelings, our anger and what was
absurd," he says. "Everything on the show was borne
from an organic place." Some of it was pretty extreme. The
show poked fun at how Saddam Hussein ordered his sons-in-law to
death. "But it wasn't outrageous, it was fact-based,"
says Karlin. The program offered news about Hussein's torture
chambers several times. "We made fun of the rape rooms that
George Bush mentioned," says the writer. "It went along
the lines of, 'When you're building a new country, a good starting
point is to get rid of the rape rooms.' We have a different mandate
than Letterman or Leno," says Karlin. "We're not serving
a mass swath of America." (Representatives for both "The
Late Show with David Letterman" and "The Tonight Show
with Jay Leno" denied interview requests. "We prefer
to let the show speak for itself," said a "Leno"
The folks behind "Jimmy Kimmel Live,"
the new talk show that airs weeknights, have found their best
material in ridiculing the war's media coverage. The program recently
made fun of People magazine for sending six reporters and photographers
to the Middle East to report on the conflict. "We said, 'They're
planning an issue on the 50 Most Beautiful Suicide Bombers',"
says Steve O'Donnell, the show's head writer. The staff's L.A.
headquarters has 12 TiVo machines, which they're constantly monitoring.
This week the producers stole a CNN "bumper" in which
the words "War with Iraq" flew over an image of an artillery
crew. It looked as thought the soldiers were ducking when the
logo flashed by. "The TV graphic appeared to menace our men
in uniform," says O'Donnell. "Didn't CNN see that?"
Recently, someone in the office noticed footage of a dancing Iraqi
holding up an American flag emblazoned with the image of Rocky
Balboa. The "Kimmel" staff put that on the air, too.
"The period of tasteful restraint gets
shorter all the time," says O'Donnell, who was the head writer
on Letterman's late-night NBC show during the 1991 Gulf War. "It
took decades before they made humorous references to the Lincoln
assassination and a decade I bet before they did the same for
JFK. Now we're down to a day or so." How does writing comedy
during this war compare with the last time around? "It's
different this time, more complicated," says O'Donnell. "A
dozen years ago at Letterman, there was only one writer who was
skeptical about the Gulf War. It was pretty cut and dry. But on
this staff, it's a spectrum of hawks and doves."
Of course, humor is still humor. The "Kimmel"
writers recently came up with a sketch called "Baghdad After
Dark." In it, an Iraqi news anchor turns to the camera and
denounces the American bombings. Then he says, "But if you
are going to continue, my mother-in-law's address is . . . '."
Times may change, but apparently, making fun of your mother-in-law
is never inappropriate.