"What's Funny About War?"
April 12, 2003
by B. J. Sigesmund


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," he insists.

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 dropped.

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 shocked").

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 or not."

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" spokesperson.)

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.


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