No Comic Cease-Fire During Iraq War

Berlin (Reuters) -- Comedians around the world have declared there won't be any cease-fire in this war.

From Cologne to California and London to Lebanon humorists have been aiming their satire at the war in Iraq, laughing at some of the media coverage while mocking Presidents Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush.

Although it may seem tasteless to be cracking jokes on late night television programs about a war in progress, political analysts say the widespread public opposition in many countries has created an unusually thick buffer to this conflict.

And some network executives have defended their decision to unleash comedians pouring scorn on the war because they believe viewers are seeking relief from it. They also point out that the war was no surprise because of its long build-up. And above all other arguments they note that the ratings remain high.

Even American comedians are lobbing their best lines of derision at the U.S.-led war, not even sparing Bush in their digs that some consider out of line and even sacrilege.

"Did you know that 'Iraq' is Arabic for 'Vietnam,"' said "Tonight" show host Jay Leno recently.

"President Bush said if Iraq gets rid of Saddam, he'll help the Iraqi people with food, medicine, supplies, housing, education. Isn't that amazing? He finally comes up with a domestic agenda. And for Iraq! Maybe we could bring that here."

Jokes on the war, Bush, and the at times breathless reports from broadcast journalists with little to report have spread in Europe, Asia, the Americas and Australia. Even a top New Zealand government official shared a favorite joke with journalists:

"Bush got a coded message from Saddam that read: '370HSSV-0773H'," the official said. "Bush was stumped and sent for the CIA. The CIA also had no answer, so it was sent to Bill Clinton. He suggested turning it upside down."

American Comedians Hit Bush Hard

American television comedians have been especially hard on Bush, hitting the president who has been a target of worldwide criticism for launching the war against Iraq without United Nations backing with a steady stream of withering one-liners.

"This war is not about oil -- it's about gasoline," said a deadpan Leno. He added that he could think of five reasons to attack Iraq: "Shell, Exxon, Mobil, Texaco and BP," said Leno, whose popular program can also be seen in many countries abroad.

"President Bush said this Iraq situation looks like the re-run of a bad movie. Well sure, there's a Bush in the White House, the economy's going to hell, we're going to war over oil -- I've seen this movie, haven't I?"

But Leno has also ridiculed Iraq's leader Saddam Hussein.

"Saddam has raised the amount going to suicide bombers from $10,000 to $25,000," Leno said after an Iraqi officer killed four American soldiers in a suicide attack on Saturday.

"What's next -- a health care plan?"

Conan O'Brien has also taken pot shots, mocking Britain's reputation for unappetizing meals.

"American and British troops handed out food to hundreds of Iraqis. Not surprisingly, Iraqis handed the British food back."

Why So Much Derision?

Dietmar Herz, political scientist at Germany's Erfurt University, said comedians declared war on this war because they feel detached.

"People are feeling a much greater distance to this war," said Herz. "Humor is a way for people to come to terms with the internal conflicts. Germans feel a bond to the United States but deplore this war. Jokes are a way for some to bridge that gap."

The German entertainer Thomas Gottschalk nevertheless felt a need to defend his decision to go ahead with his variety program just two days after the war started. He told his audience "A little humor never hurts anyone."

German network executives have also felt compelled to defend the gallows humor aired on channels next to news broadcasts showing mounting casualties on both sides of the war.

A spokeswoman for Raab's Pro-7 network, Susanne Lang, said the Academy Awards went on as scheduled despite the war.

"With the Academy Awards we saw there was scope for entertainment on television alongside the war," Lang said.

Helmut Thoma, former head of top-rated RTL, said there was no need to keep the comedians off the air.

"The last war in 1991 shocked everyone," he said. "Now, no one can stand being forced into mourning over this war."

Hitting Rumsfeld with Humor

Harald Schmidt was among the first to satirize television journalists who talk a lot but say little. He also lampooned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had dismissed France and Germany as the "old Europe" for their anti-war stance.

"Iraq is fighting back -- that is, the 'old Iraq' Rumsfeld says," quipped Schmidt, Germany's answer to Leno.

"Bush is going to have to finish this war himself -- he doesn't have a son who can do it for him later."

Schmidt has awarded mock marks to journalists doing live stand-up reports from Baghdad for their "hairstyle, outfit, background and nerves." He gave top marks to a reporter whose long dark wavy hair defied Iraqi windstorms and stayed in place.

"There are just too many war programs on television -- they're ruining this war," Schmidt said to thunderous applause.

In France, where anti-war sentiment is widespread, there have been few jokes about Iraq. A notable exception has been Plantu, front-page cartoonist for the daily Le Monde, who has been wielding his caustic pen against the United States.

In one cartoon, a U.S. soldier steps onto a lunar landscape and says, paraphrasing Neil Armstrong's famous comment, "It's one small step for man ... one giant step for stupidity."

The Israeli newspaper Maariv ran a picture of American soldiers captured last week by Iraq forces.

"Terrific achievement for the United States," it wrote alongside a picture of the POWs. "Despite the sandstorm, seven Americans already made it to Baghdad."

In Moscow, the respected daily Izvestiya devoted more than half of its front page on Tuesday to dark satire on the war.

"Saddam claims to have shot down a British warplane, but Bush says: 'It's a lie. We shot it down!"' read one of the Russian jokes mocking friendly fire incidents in the war.

"Mr. Bush, do you have proof that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction?," asks a journalist at a fictional news conference. Bush's answer: "Yes, we kept the receipts."

In Australia, one mock news story goes: "U.S. forces swooped down on an Iraqi primary school and detained 6th Grade teacher Mohammed Al-Hazar. Sources indicate he was in possession of a ruler, a protractor, and a calculator. Bush argued this was clear evidence Iraq has weapons of 'maths instruction."'

Even comedians in traditionally neutral Sweden can't resist.

"The text on leaflets dropped over Iraq reads: 'McDonald's, opening soon in Baghdad' 'Hands up!' and 'Collect four of these and you'll get a free Coke once we're finished bombing'."


COPYRIGHT: (c) Reuters 2003. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content, including by caching, framing or similar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters. Reuters and the Reuters sphere logo are registered trademarks and trademarks of the Reuters group of companies around the world.