OVER THE weekend at the city's brand-new comedy club, The Improv, standup comic Lewis Black made a joke about George W. Bush. It wasn't a very good joke, but maybe it was an important one just because somebody dared to make it.
Before Sept. 11, Black said, the president was "an idiot." After Sept. 11, "a genius." Then Black went into some of the schtick he performs to motorize his material. He shook his jowls. He rolled his eyes. He went into an entire orchestration of exasperations to show he was kidding and that Bush was, is and always would be the man he was before the day of terrorist attacks.
As it happens, the crowd at The Improv applauded loudly. In historic perspective, this was to be expected. What the heck: Franklin Roosevelt (and Eleanor; and Roosevelt's dog Fala, too) were panned during World War II; Harry Truman was slammed during the Korean War; Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were vilified during the war in Vietnam. (And Bill Clinton was mocked, ridiculed and lampooned during World War Monica.) Should Bush expect anything less?
Well, yes, as it turns out.
In the four months since the terrorist attacks, all the president's qualities - his character, his intellect, his performance on the job, his politics - have been perceived as off comedic limits. To poke fun at Bush was implicitly to ridicule the war effort, which was to ridicule all those who performed valiantly, all who suffered, and all who died on Sept. 11.
Thus, the domino effect of comedy.
But if knocking Bush was seen as unpatriotic and in terrifically poor taste, there was something else at work: our own fears. The attacks really did frighten us. As we huddled in the dark precincts of our souls, recovering from our glimpse into hell and imagining the end of the way of life we had known, we needed new boundaries on acceptable behavior. Mocking the leader of the free world did not fit into those boundaries; if loose lips sank ships, what disasters might loose laughter unleash?
Eventually, jokes about Osama bin Laden became acceptable - but only after it became clear we were nailing his forces to the walls of their caves. Meanwhile, the idea of joking about Bush remained tricky. We were still rallying around him, and still precisely equating his wartime stature with our national safety.
If we're willing to relax that equation, maybe it's a healthy sign. Not because it's Bush - but because it shows we're emerging from the dark of our emotional bunkers, and looking at the world around us, and regaining a sense of perspective.
For here, over the weekend, was Lewis Black again: talking about that $300 tax rebate many of us received that Bush claimed to be an "economic stimulus." What stimulus? The recession that dares not speak its name continues. Unemployment rises to its highest level in seven years. The once-bountiful surplus has shrunk, and the federal budget is predicted to be tens of billions of dollars more in the red than previously anticipated.
Should we not be allowed to talk about such things?
And here was Black again, jowls flying, lips flibberty-gibbering, eyes comically rolling, but again pleading for perspective: Whatever happened to autumn? Whatever happened to temperatures drooping before the winter chill? Whatever happened to a nation that proclaimed itself concerned about global warming but has since walked away from treaties protecting the environment?
This fall, said Black, we had wild bears walking around in 70-degree temperatures, telling themselves, "I think I should be hibernating in a cave by now - but, jeez, it's so balmy out here."
We've had four people die from terrorist anthrax, Black said, but an entire planet's survival, the prospect of droughts, floods, rising global temperatures - all these are overlooked in the panic of the moment and the current unwritten rule about criticizing the man running the show.
And there you have the importance of the intelligent comedian. At its best, the comic's job isn't just to make us laugh, but to drive away the darkness a little, to expand our borders of thinking - to shake loose the cobwebs in our souls and amid the ambivalence in our hearts.
And it's to take part in the democratic process - which means arguing things out in public, and not marching in lockstep with the crowd. Even when it means going against the very things that frighten us the most.
So, Republican, Democrat or even Clarence Mitchell IV-style independent, it was refreshing to hear Lewis Black over the weekend and refreshing to witness the crowds there to hear him.
The Improv, which opened at the Port Discovery Marketplace complex on New Year's Eve weekend, was packed for all weekend shows. Outside, that famous springlike fall had given way to a blustery winter chill, but there was action at all the restaurants and cafes in the complex, from Howl at the Moon and McFadden's and Babalu Grill to Bill Bateman's and Mondo Bondo and the Baja Club and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse around the corner.
It's always nice to see signs of life downtown - particularly in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. In an anxious nation, in a city always jittery about crime, the area was jumping. And, in a time of political correctness, it was nice to see Lewis Black making jokes about the chief politician. Laughter is still honorable. Regardless of party, it's the American way.