Now Laughing Matters More Than Ever

The unfathomable events of Sept. 11 have brought comedy under a media magnifying glass as never before. Contemplating what subjects you can and can't make funny has long been a topic of interest within the industry, but now national media are watching and reporting on the unfolding censorship issues occurring as humorists and performers express opinions. The fine line between hard news and entertainment has never been more blurry. For example, as this column goes to press, in one week we saw Jesse Jackson's brush with the Taliban presented first by press conference and on the news; then we saw him and the story lampooned on the new season opener of "Saturday Night Live" (showing political satire is still alive and kicking); then Jackson was back as one of the panelists sharing views with the now more "Politically Incorrect" than ever—and much scrutinized—Bill Maher.

We also witnessed high numbers of viewers, rather than just the dedicated night owls, tuning in to see how Letterman, Leno, O'Brien, and Stewart would return to the TV screen. The moving way each handled his return to nightly monologues and interviews (will anyone ever forget Dave holding the hand of a weeping Dan Rather?) was impressive. We could all breathe a sigh of relief and thanks that these comfortingly familiar faces found a way to come back to us so quickly, and thus give us permission to, as the Red Cross suggests in its guidelines, "Do something you enjoy. It's okay to smile; in fact, it's good for you, and in no way is it disrespectful." If we hoped their return might give us a few moments of escape, it also finally underlined for the media and viewers what you readers who are comics and this columnist already knew—that comics aren't machines; they have feelings like everyone else. It's not an easy job to find your way back to being funny in the midst of so much sorrow, and I hope that fewer people will now sit in the dark watching comics and thinking, "I could do it better."

Gina Savage, entertainment director of NYC's Boston Comedy Club, didn't feel "ready for comedy" after the club stayed closed the first weekend. It was the firefighters at the station next door who, even though they'd lost one of their own, encouraged her to reopen, saying, "We need you guys to get back; people will need to laugh." She adds candidly, "I wanted to respect that." The club has already done benefits to aid the firefighter's family and hopes to continue to do so. As always, Savage doesn't consider censoring material, and will continue booking the new "Politically Smart Mouthed" early Wednesday nights that have been doing so well. She tells me some comics are sticking to their past material, while others feel remiss if they don't try to touch on the tragedy. Savage finds audiences "more quiet and polite," especially laughing at humor about our differences.

At NYC's Gotham Comedy Club, co-owner Chris Mazzilli tells me that while they stayed closed the first week, and then saw a 40% drop in attendance on weeknights (weekend attendance continued strong), he's now seeing regulars return and give themselves permission to laugh. He's noticed that the few comics doing terrorist humor before Sept. 11 are no longer doing that material, and while other performers aren't doing material about the tragedy, they're expressing personal feelings about it to audiences during sets. The club has been able to host shows with Comedy Central and cast members from "The Daily Show" (including my favorite rant newscaster, Lewis Black, who often performs at Gotham) in order to raise money for The WTC Relief Fund. Gotham owners Mazzilli and Michael Reisman have also just opened their first restaurant, Arezzo, down the street at 46 West 22nd St. They discovered that, even though it's only 11 weeks old, this modern regional Italian venture was the first to bounce back in attendance; it seems people were able to dine just a little sooner than they were able to come out and laugh.

Are your audiences giving themselves permission to laugh? Are you at a loss for words, or are you writing nonstop—and then feeling concerned about expressing your opinions? What's working for you and what isn't? I'll be asking comics and clubs in future columns for this feedback, and I hope you'll e-mail your thoughts to [email protected] (Even if you want to remain anonymous in print, please include your name and a contact number.) While there will always be comics with their own rules of the road, I've found over the years that there are certain givens many agree on about what works and what doesn't. For me, there's no talent who can put this into words better than Jim David, a savvy and sassy award-winning comic and writer, adept at handling any type of crowd. I wanted to share the wise observations he e-mailed to me.

"Comedians, who talk for a living, are suddenly at a loss for words. Tragedy, especially a collective tragedy shared by everyone in the audience, is not that good for stand-up comedy. While there's always a place for dark humor about touchy subjects, audiences do not generally respond to jokes about human suffering, especially when a lot of them have been through it personally. Even if they haven't, some subjects are untouchable. In a controversial area, comics can joke about the perpetrators, but not the victims. Gary Condit was joked about, but not Chandra Levy. Timothy McVeigh was a target, but the Oklahoma bombing and the victims were off limits. The O.J. Simpson case was easy because of the trashy, tabloid story, and the cast of characters was a field day for comics, but not Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman.

"It's interesting to see how comics are handling the World Trade Center catastrophe. Comedians are a stubborn lot who refuse to let their sense of humor be another casualty of war. The best comedy acts as catharsis, where laughter is used to heal the discomfort about a particular subject. Right now this situation is still too raw and horrifying to go full throttle with edgy material. Comedians must take care not to trivialize the event or dishonor the memory of the dead. It's inevitable the Taliban will eventually receive a comic pounding, and the myriad of subjects brought on by the situation—religious extremism, heightened security, media overkill—are all fair game.

"Comedy can be a healthy outlet for anger. As soon as people get through their grief, they're probably going to get angry, and comics are angrier than most. Jerry Falwell's hysterical outburst blaming gays, feminists, and the 'liberal agenda' is a perfect target. Some comics are already angry at the unbridled patriotism now expected of each citizen, and audiences are beginning to laugh at the many related topics. However, they still don't want to hear that much of it, and are appreciative when the comic moves on to jokes about dating or the dog. It will be fascinating to see how this tragedy will affect our lives, how people and perceptions will change. Whatever happens, comedians will be there. They need to talk about it in order to grow creatively and learn how to do quality comedy that doesn't offend the audience at a very sensitive time, yet still makes them laugh and think. Stand-up will thrive because, right now, we all need laughter more than ever."