Chat-show funnymen find US in no mood for laughs

ACROSS THE country, comedy clubs - a fine urban-American tradition - remain locked until further notice. Millions could do with cheering up, but few seem ready to take the step of putting up with someone making them laugh. The time, it seems, is just not right. Ever wary of ratings, however, the nation's most famous television comics started a gentle return back to the airwaves this week after the terrorist devastation in New York and Washington.

Early signs suggested it would not be easy. All manner of Americans are starting to say things like 'the world has changed' in normal conversation. They are talking about cultural and social norms as much as anything else as their grief and shock still runs close to the surface. People's minds are simply elsewhere.

Laughing at the President's expense, even one as easy to mock as George W. Bush, is out. So is anything seen as flippant or cruel - both late-night stock-in-trade for the likes of America's leading jesters, David Letterman, Jay Leno and Bill Maher.

Nightly programmes such as Leno's The Tonight Show and Letterman's Late Show show, as well as newer vehicles such as Maher's Politically Incorrect or Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, were all quickly pulled within hours of the September 11 tragedy. Stewart's vehicle went to re-runs but even that proved problematic, given his merciless skewering of Mr Bush in just about every show.

The industry is hotly competitive, and such shows are among the most closely watched on American screens. They are also increasingly influential, too. Significant numbers of young voters admitted getting their political news from Stewart's spoofs during last year's election, such was the level of public cynicism with Washington.

Letterman was the first to return on Monday - an important symbol, as the show is based in New York, America's greatest city and one still locked in a state of communal grief. (Letterman's Monday show was broadcast a day late in Hong Kong in an early-morning slot.) The regular bounce and swagger were gone. So was the stiletto wit of his opening monologue. Instead, Letterman appeared to try to lead his adopted home back to normality, saying he had followed the call of Mayor Rudy Giuliani to 'get back to our lives'. His hands appeared to shake at times and occasionally his voice quivered with emotion. 'If you didn't believe it before, you can absolutely believe it now, New York City is the greatest city in the world,' Letterman said to thumping applause.

His first guest was veteran broadcaster Dan Rather. Exhausted from a week of 16-hour days and a tour of the World Trade Centre site, Rather broke down in an unprecedented display of emotion in his 40-year career in television. It was a most peculiar broadcast moment. Rather broke down in tears twice, asked to hold Letterman's hand and gushed over Mr Bush's leadership.

After a commercial break, he recovered to slay America's intelligence services for failing to detect the plot. Letterman also got personal. 'We're told they were zealots fuelled by religious fervour,' Letterman said of the plotters. 'If you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any goddamn sense to you?'

While Rather faced criticism from some media critics for losing his 'detachment', Letterman got rave reviews for his role. Leno was not so lucky. Comedy is the toughest of arenas, particularly when no one wants to laugh.

Stuck out in Los Angeles, the big-chinned funnyman returned a night later. Again there were no jokes as such but rather a small sermon on how 'irrelevant' he felt.

He conducted a serious interview on terrorism with Republican Senator John McCain and then moved on to 1960s musical survivors Crosby, Stills and Nash. As sincere as Leno might have been in not clowning about, it was not enough for some reviewers, exposing the risks of the moment. 'Leno is a comedian,' sneered Tom Shales in The Washington Post, adding that Leno 'did not have any trouble' holding back tears. 'When he tries to hunker down and level with the audience, he just looks showbizzy and fake.'

As Leno trots out nightly to start to lead the nation to laughter, he might have to take some lessons from Don Rickles, a veteran stand-up comic and film actor whose pug looks date back to on-screen performances with Frank Sinatra.

While Leno and Letterman were hogging the headlines and the ratings, Rickles was quietly treading the boards again at the Stardust Resort in Las Vegas, his occasional home for more than 40 years. He did it, it seems, by keeping it simple and staying true to his craft.

'I got through it,' he said. 'I did exactly what I do, and the audience thanked me for lifting their spirits.' Rickles has moved on to dates in clubs in nearby Lake Tahoe. But not even this veteran is ready to face New York. He has cancelled forthcoming dates in the Big Apple until further notice.

Greg Torode is the Post's Washington correspondent