September 19, 2001

When can we laugh again?

By Peter Hartzel
News Staff Writer

Send in the clowns.

After a week of ceaseless attention to anguish and evil, the nation isn't just ready for the return of late night comedy -- it's downright anxious for it.

David Letterman, the gap-toothed overseer of CBS' "Late Show," again welcomed crowds to New York's Ed Sullivan Theatre on Monday night. CBS' Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn "also returned to the airwaves Monday night, while NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" came back last night.

"I think it's appropriate," said Samantha Yelin, 22, a barista at Starbuck's in Sharon's Post Office Square. "Not everyone can be in constant mourning. Besides, it's people's choice to watch it."

The return of late-night comedy -- and of sporting events and other entertainments -- has happened not a moment too soon, according to psychologists, who say such diversions will play an important role in healing the nation's collective psychic wounds. Americans are in dour, dire need of a good laugh right about now, they say.

"Humor plays a critical role in helping us recover from tragedy, and ultimately what it does is put things in perspective," said Steve Sultanov, a psychologist and specialist in the therapeutic application of humor. "What humor does psychologically is it helps relieve distressing emotions."

Laughter provides more than just a healthy means of copying psychologically. A hearty chuckle has a very real and positive physical effect as well, releasing endorphins, giving internal organs "a soothing massage," according to Mark Gorkin, America Online's "The Stress Doc."

"We have to try to get back to some semblance of normal," said Kenny Kramer, the man who inspired the "Kramer" character on TV's "Seinfeld." "The great thing about humor is, when you're laughing, you're not hurting."

Still, the late-night hosts say they will ease back into comedy gradually, temporarily forgoing many of their usual bits.

An emotional Letterman began the "Late Show" Monday without the fanfare, music and opening monologue that usually mark the first few minutes of the show. Sitting solemnly, the late-night veteran admitted he wondered about whether it was "appropriate" to host a comedy show so soon after the tragedy. He decided to return, though, to honor New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's request that the city begin to return to normal life.

The show was anything but the usual hour-long showcase for Letterman's irony-and-absurdity-laced humor.

"We've lost more than 5,000 of our fellow New Yorkers and, boy, you can feel it... It's just terribly sad," said Letterman, who also railed against the perpetrators of history's worst act of terrorism: "They did it because of 'religious fervor'? And if you live to be 1,000 years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any sense at all?"

Letterman took a few digs at guest Regis Philbin, a "Late Show" regular -- "at least we have something to make fun of tonight" -- but the remainder of the show was equally somber, as Letterman discussed the tragedy with Philbin and "CBS Evening News" anchorman Dan Rather.

Rather broke down and sobbed twice, for which he apologized, saying "I'm a pro. I'm paid not to let it show."

Last night, "The Tonight Show," too, eschewed its usual hi-jinks. Instead of banter with the likes of Nicholas Cage and Dennis Rodman, the show featured Leno holding court with guest Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who declared, "God may take mercy on these terrorists, but we will not."

Sultanov, the psychologist, said Americans needed to let themselves experience distressing emotions in the days immediately following the tragedy, and that humor would have been "very inappropriate" during that time.

But, he said, "as people recover a little bit, that's the time that humor is most effective."

When comedy shows return full-force to humor, though, they'll have to wrestle with how to deal, if at all, with the topic.

Though such dark, unseemly chapters in American life as O.J. Simpson's double-murder trial or the U.S. government's raid on David Koresh's Waco compound have been accepted fodder for humor, the events of last week are on a scale heretofore unimagined -- and, thus, probably toxic for comics.

"I think it's going to be tough sledding for comedy writers over the next few months because these wounds are deep and are not going to heal easily. I don't know if we're going to be able to joke about terrorists and things like that in the future," said John DiPitero, a Worcester State College communications professor. "There are comedians who make a living out of offending everyone, and now, you don't know who you're offending."

Sultanov believes, however, that comics will eventually approach the subject, albeit in tangential ways.

"While is clearly isn't funny, we're going to find funny things that come out of it. It will be gradual. You're not going to hear the jokes about people being incinerated, which you did hear after Waco," he said.

Said Izzy Giselle, a Northampton-based motivational speaker and former stand-up comic, "I think Letterman and Leno are going to go and test the waters and be respectful of the audience. It's not going to be a joke about the victims. It's going to be a joke about the perpetrators. Or that Fidel Castro wants to join the coalition: I can see Bush saying, 'Who invited this guy?'"

Many regulars in the Boston comedy circuit are wrestling with similar questions.

"Obviously, we're not going to touch on anything that has to do with buildings, airplanes, anything like that," said Will Luera, artistic director of Cambridge's Improv Theatre. "This broke all the boundaries that we normally can play with, like ultra-patriotism or ultra-religious fanatics."

Boston stand-up comic Emily Singer said "jokes about the tragedy are inappropriate" but believes comedy unrelated to those events could be therapeutic and help people "escape" their grip for at least a little while.

"Comedy can be extremely healing," said Singer, who entered the business "as a way of getting over the loss of a friend. To be able to laugh for a half-hour or an hour, it's an incredibly empowering experience."