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Comedians venture into subject some contend is no laughing matter

By The Associated Press


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ASPEN, Colo. — Six months after Sept. 11, comedians unleashed jokes during the four-day run of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival that suggest humor once again knows no bounds.

And that could mean trouble as a survey published by the First Amendment Center says nearly 40% of Americans believe free speech should be curtailed in times of national crisis.

Comedy may be one of the victims of the terrorist attacks, the executive director of the First Amendment Center said March 2 at the festival.

Ken Paulson said the survey done for the center found that 39% of the respondents could see a role for government in curbing offensive humor.

"How willing are we to curtail speech if it simply makes us uncomfortable? Is there a figurative 'no joke' sign hanging over the United States these days? Have terrorist attacks chilled our sense of humor?" Paulson asked at a festival seminar.

The festival honored Bill Maher, host of ABC's "Politically Incorrect," and others for using comedy to explore social issues, sometimes risking damage to their careers.

Some sponsors pulled their ads from Maher's show after he referred to the American use of cruise missiles to hit faraway targets as cowardly.

He made the remark on his first show after the Sept. 11 attacks. He later said he did not mean that members of the military were cowardly, but that the government and politicians were.

Maher did not refer directly to the incident at the festival. "Life is probably less bumpy if you're not in line for one of these (comedy) awards," he said.

Maher declined to discuss whether ABC will renew his show. "I'm not here to deal with that. At this moment I'm talking and dealing with my friends," he said.

Others honored March 2 included "All in the Family" creator Norman Lear, comedians Tommy and Dick Smothers and Dick Gregory, and "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker.

George Carlin told a festival audience he is appalled by politically correct language.

"I'm talking about what originated as campus speech codes at Eastern universities that has come to be called politically correct language. It is a form of intolerance," he said.

Tommy Smothers said free speech is in some ways more threatened now than it was in 1969 when CBS canceled the Smothers' comedy show after battles with network censors about criticism of the Vietnam War.

"Thirty years later, people say, 'Don't you guys wish you had a television show now? You could say anything you want,'" Smothers said. "That's an illusion, isn't it?"

The First Amendment Center poll was conducted in February by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut. The sampling error for 1,001 national interviews is plus or minus 3%.

Commenting on the sketch comedy and stand-ups she witnessed in Aspen, Whoopi Goldberg said: "This is the new sound of comedy. It's a brand new world and it's no longer cutesy-poo."

Comedian Andy Blitz's act was typical of the no-holds barred attitude that seems to be part of the new comedic world order. "Terrorists?" Blitz said. "I hate those guys. They're promised 40 virgins in the afterlife. What did they do to deserve their fate?

"We've never had sex. Now we have to share an exploded guy."

The hard-edged material was interspersed throughout the festival, with the special "Regarding 9/11" presentation March 2 featuring up-and-coming comics and veterans like Gregory and Maher.

"I just hope we can lose the fear (in society) so I can get back to finding out what happened to albinos after high school," Gregory said.

Chicago-based comedian Dwayne Kennedy joked that the attacks "messed up my 'the white man is the devil' theory."

"The reality is Americans seem to have lost their sense of humor when they're afraid," said Paulson.

The festival hopes to change that.

Judi Brown, the festival's senior producer of talent, said audiences quickly returned to comedy clubs after Sept. 11.

"Comics started performing right away because it was cathartic," Brown said.

Some audience members at the festival were offended by Steve Marmel's dialogue that criticized Arabs. After some boos, Marmel reminded the audience the festival's theme this year is free speech.

Patti Lecht of Snowmass said she supported Marmel, no matter how shocking. "Either we voice our opinions and voice them loudly. Or if we don't we're being pushed to conformity," she said.

Another seminar, "Entertainment and the Media," may reflect the continued blurring of lines between news and entertainment.

Panel moderator Chris Matthews, anchor of the MSNBC program "Hardball," asked rhetorically, "Does anyone think that news is not driven by the same thing as entertainment?"

David Letterman is reportedly being wooed by ABC for the time slot long-held by Ted Koppel's "Nightline."

While "Nightline" is reportedly still a money-maker, it attracts an older audience than Letterman's 24- to 35-year-old target market that is considered most desirable to advertisers.

"Some people get their news from The Daily Show," said Larry Divney, president and CEO of Comedy Central. "I read The New York Times in depth. I don't need to watch Koppel."


Comedy and Freedom of Speech, 2002
Download and print out Comedy and Freedom of Speech as an Adobe Acrobat file from this page.  03.01.02

Nearly 4 in 10 Americans favor government limits on humor after terrorist attacks
News release First Amendment Center survey suggests many U.S. citizens are reluctant to give full First Amendment protection to comedic speech, art or performances that could potentially insult or offend others.  03.01.02

Comedy festival to celebrate free speech
U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, First Amendment Center acknowledge challenges faced by outspoken artists.  02.27.02

Protecting the punch line — it's serious business
By Ken Paulson The right to tell a joke that may offend others is as critical to our way of life as it is to stand on the proverbial soapbox and raise one’s voice in protest.  03.10.02

When comedy offends: Revisiting the Smothers Brothers
By Ken Paulson Whether during a war in 1969 or now, Americans show limited appetite for real political satire, commentary.  11.04.01