Comedy keeps spirits alive in midst of terror

Heard the one about the sky marshal who forced the little old lady with the ball of yarn off the airplane?

He was afraid she was going to knit an Afghan.

Ba dum bum.

But seriously, folks, this is a sobering time. We’ve been attacked and have gone to war. Anthrax arrives in the mail. We’re jittery, shocked and unsure.

But, darn it, we’re also Americans. And that’s why in the midst of the terror we’re doing what Americans have done for decades during wartime.

We’re telling jokes.

Speaking of which, have you seen tonight’s lineup in the “Taliban TV Guide”?

7:30 p.m. Wheel of Terror and Fortune

8 p.m. Husseinfeld.

8:30 p.m. Mad About Everything.

9 p.m. I Dream of Jihad.

9:30 p.m. Veronica’s Closet Full of Long Black Shapeless Dresses and Veils.

10 p.m. No-Witness News.

Some may think the jokes are insensitive. Others say they’re essential. One thing is certain: Like `em or not they’re going to keep coming, because that’s what we do. That’s how we cope.

“Humor is a necessary lubricant in any troubling situation,” said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University in New York.

Or as humor expert Anne Collins Smith puts it: “The human mind can’t withstand that much unrelenting sadness. Humor is an outlet where we like to take refuge.”

Smith, who teaches at Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna University, recently took refuge in an editorial cartoon.

“There’s a woman at a Red Cross blood donation center who addresses George Bush, who is holding a picture of Osama bin Laden,” she said.

“She says: `What type of blood do you want to donate?’ And he says: `All of his.’ And I thought, `That’s really funny!’ Then I thought, `That’s really gross.’ Then I thought, `That’s really funny!”’

Americans have been using humor during wartime since anyone can remember.

In World War I Americans sang war comedy songs, including “Let’s Bury the Hatchet – in the Kaiser’s Head.” During World War II Charlie Chaplin lampooned Adolf Hitler in “The Great Dictator” while Bob Hope became the comic laureate of the American military with his USO shows.

Even Dr. Seuss got into the act. Before he penned “Green Eggs and Ham,” he drew political cartoons of Hitler and others.

The lesson: War may be hell, but it’s also a perfect crucible for comedy.

During the Iranian hostage crisis, we had Ayatollah Toilet Paper. The Persian Gulf War spawned pictures of Saddam Hussein in a framed toilet seat.

Now Osama bin Laden and the Taliban are in the comic cross hairs.

Through the years humor has been used to break tension, boost morale and help us feel less threatened by an enemy.

But unlike other wars, we now have the Internet, complete with Taliban-joke Web pages, downloadable Osama bin Laden shooting games, mock TV schedules and jokes that grow online and spread instantly around the world via e-mail.

Unrestrained by the strictures of regulated media, many of the jokes are raw and over the top.

One online game, “Bin Laden Liquors,” allows players to enter a virtual store with a gun and repeatedly blast bin Laden to kingdom come.

If you like parody songs, it’s hard to go wrong with an animated Colin Powell and George Bush performing to the tune of the “Banana Boat (Day-O)” song:

“Come Mr. Taliban, turn over bin Laden.

Daylight come and we drop de bomb.”

Thompson, the pop culture expert, isn’t surprised by any of it.

“In this kind of war, where there are mountains and caves, and we don’t know where they are, and we’re not fighting a state, and there’s this total sense of impotence, I think a lot of people think the only thing they can do is tell these nasty jokes and play these nasty games.”

People simply need humor during uncertain times, said Kansas City area comedian David Naster.

“It keeps us going so we don’t just melt down in a corner.”

Naster was in Baltimore Sept. 11 scheduled to do his act. After some discussion, the show went on.

And when he finished, a woman came up to him.

“Thank you for making me laugh,” she said. “I needed that more than you’ll ever know.”

He found out later that her husband worked in the World Trade Center and she had yet to hear from him.

Naster is familiar with the healing power of humor. He has written two books on the subject.

His first, “You Just Have to Laugh,” included stories from police officers and firefighters who used humor as salve in their stress-filled lives.

His second book, “You Just Have to Laugh Again,” teaches the value of humor during illnesses, injuries and death.

“Sounds kind of grim,” Naster said. “But laughter is mentally and physically good for you. It releases endorphins in your brain. It gives you hope in what seems like a hopeless time.”

But comedians still have to tread carefully, said California comedy writer and novelist John Blumenthal.

“During World War II it was OK to make fun of Hitler, but even today, 60 years later, even the most benign jokes about the Holocaust are taboo.”

Better to focus on the bad guy.

“The Hitler and bin Laden jokes have a purpose,” Blumenthal said. “Since we can’t really understand true evil, we make a joke about it. It helps us deal with it.”

Blumenthal said Americans’ ability to laugh during stressful periods is not only healthy, but empowering. It gives Americans more resilience.