James Sullivan – The San Francisco Chronicle – Tuesday, April 1st, 2003

      The Bush administration deliberated for days before settling on a name for war in the Middle East: Operation Iraqi Freedom. Last week at Cobb’s Comedy Club, headliner Greg Proops joked that he’d hoped for a hipper name.

      “Something like the Bob Hope Desert Classic.”

      Proops, a deft, wicked-witted comic who grew up in San Carlos, peppered his act with wartime observations, almost all of them disparaging of the Bush administration or the foibles of American culture. Cobb’s, located at Fisherman’s Wharf, draws a touristy crowd, and Thursday’s wasn’t always thrilled with the comic’s perspectives. He kept them laughing nonetheless, by riffing on their discomfort.

      Is it not hypocritical, Proops wondered, for the United States to attack a country for keeping weapons of mass destruction? “Apparently,” he said, his voice oozing sarcasm, “ours are weapons of growth and nurturing.”

      Is there anything funny about mass destruction? In the days after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Americans agonized over our usual instinct to ridicule everything. For a few days or weeks, that attitude seemed utterly inappropriate.

      But the war in Iraq, however grim, was fully anticipated. And the cultural developments surrounding it — the media coverage, the celebrity protests, the freedom fries — have been fair game for comedians and satirists since day one.

      Even during wartime, audiences want to hear comic truths, said San Francisco stand-up comedian Brian Malow. “Sometimes you say things they’ve almost thought. You’re giving them a voice, in a way.”

      Malow, a self-described “science-flavored” comic who has grown more political in recent years (“You gotta love America,” he says, “or they’ll start a file on you”), has plenty of new material devoted to the war with Iraq.

      One bit involves a news item in which an Israeli government censor warned Web sites not to publish sensitive information about the war.

      “That’s CNN’s job,” Malow jokes.

      On the first weekend of the war, he opened a set at Cobb’s with material about President Bush. Most of the crowd stayed with him, but one guy stomped out, calling the comic “a worthless American.” On the way out the door, the outraged man told an employee that the club should advertise whether its comedians are liberal or conservative.

      On late-night television, by and large the only bias has been toward getting the laugh.

      The official military term wasn’t always Operation Iraqi Freedom, Jay Leno said recently on “The Tonight Show”: “They were going to call it Operation Iraqi Liberation until they realized that spells O-I-L.”

      “President Bush has said that he does not need approval from the U.N. to wage war,” said David Letterman, who was famously distraught over Sept. 11, “and I’m thinking, well, hell, he didn’t need the approval of the American voters to become president, either.”

      Most notable has been Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” on which host Jon Stewart has combined his trademark mockery of the news of the day with some surprisingly insightful guest appearances by diplomats and media gatekeepers.

      Stewart’s wisecracking correspondents have been devouring the absurdities of war, slyly subverting administration policies by posing as smug know-it- alls who don’t doubt for a second America’s righteousness. Last week one mock reporter, exploring France’s disdain for the United States, acted genuinely perplexed as he asked a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, “Why do they think we’re so arrogant? Is it because we kick so much ass, or is it because they’re a bunch of wusses?”

      The Onion, the aggressively funny print and online newspaper parody that briefly suspended operation after Sept. 11, has been on a roll, too. Labeling its war coverage “Operation Piss Off the Planet,” the age-of-irony lampoon has run recent headlines including “Sheryl Crow Unsuccessful; War on Iraq Begins” and “Vital Info on Iraqi Chemical Weapons Provided by U.S. Company That Made Them.”

      And e-mail in-boxes are cluttered with links to war-humor sites. One pokes fun at the sometimes indecipherable instructional images on the government’s terror-alert Web site (www.ready.gov), “pictures so ambiguous they could mean anything.” A symbol depicting the proper response to an emergency radio broadcast is interpreted with typical cheek: “If you hear the Backstreet Boys, Michael Bolton or Yanni on the radio, cower in the corner or run like hell.”

      Another site, the very official-looking www.whitehouse.org, features a page on which Attorney General John Ashcroft appears to invite readers to register themselves as true American patriots (“because non-traitors have nothing to hide”).

      The form includes a question about political affiliation, with possible responses including three shades of Republican and one alternate, “Other (Communist).”

      For Malow, the stand-up comic, humor is a great antidote to fear. He once performed at a friend’s wedding reception in Atlanta, during which he told a joke about getting mugged. (When the assailant demanded all his money, he replied, “I don’t have it all with me.”)

      As it happened, two of the wedding party’s family members had just gotten mugged. Though the groom was anxious that the joke would be upsetting for them, the couple approached Malow afterward to thank him.

      “They were laughing at a subject they didn’t think they could laugh at just a few minutes before,” he recalled.

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