- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 19, 2001

ATLANTA — We now return you to your regular popular culture. Drenched in irony and cynicism, it is a playground for postmodern hipsters, where if you can think it, you can spoof it, and the appropriate response to anything is the jaded, all-purpose "whatever."

America won't see "Saturday Night Live" goofing on office workers in the World Trade Center, or the terrorist equivalent of the Dancing Itos. But even as the entertainment industry, mainly television and movies, struggles to come to grips with the enormity of last week's attacks and the aftermath, yanking, postponing and retooling various projects, there is a strong feeling that the public's taste will be to return, eventually, to the things that gave them a charge before Sept. 11.

"The audience will tell you how quickly they are ready for a cathartic leavening of the situation," says Bill Maher, the barb-throwing stand-up comic and host of ABC's "Politically Incorrect." "After Oklahoma City, the audience was hungry for it before I was."

"Some people will make jokes close to the topic that we are afraid of," says Amos Zeichner, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Georgia. "The concept of gallows humor is designed to make yourself feel better, that everything's OK."

Although much of pop culture is rightly seen as frivolous, the question of its future after the attacks on New York and suburban Washington is not. Pop culture is both a mirror and a molder of who America is, setting the agenda for what is permissible to laugh at, who we scorn or embrace, how one should feel.

"American culture is this extraordinarily strong solvent. It absorbs and digests things in pretty quick order," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

So far, few of the sick jokes that spring up like weeds after a tragedy have circulated.

"I haven't heard anything even remotely like the Challenger jokes, and I'm glad," says Dave Barry, the syndicated humor columnist and author.

Those who look hard can find some sick jokes on the Internet, but it's as if the jokesters were straining for their punch lines out of some macabre obligation, rather than as a spontaneous outpouring.

"With Challenger," says Mr. Barry, "it was like a horrible tragedy that happened to someone else. In this case, it felt like it was happening to your family."

The attack seared itself in our communal memory as images, so the imagery media like movies and television will be where the flashbacks will hit. Reading a Tom Clancy thriller a month from now probably will not be creepy, but watching a Blockbuster rental of "Die Hard" could be a completely different and perhaps unsettling experience, despite its "happy" ending.

After all, what was the one phrase everyone from Katie Couric to your next-door neighbor kept repeating when it was all just sinking in? "It looked like a movie."

For once, Hollywood "got it" immediately. Two upcoming films were pulled: "Big Trouble," a comedy that keys on a bomb being smuggled onto an airplane, and "Collateral Damage," with Arnold Schwarzenegger battling terrorists. They may show up someday, but it took two years after the Columbine massacre for "O," a movie with violence in a high school, to be released.

ABC, CBS and NBC all pushed back their season premieres a week, and fretted what to do about certain shows, particularly "24," a Fox thriller pilot scheduled for October in which a terrorist blows up a plane, and "The Agency," a CBS drama about the CIA that also has a terrorist plot.

Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" is off the air for an undetermined period, and "Saturday Night Live," which was due back with new episodes Sept. 29, is on hold.

Stand-up comic and "Daily Show" contributor Lewis Black, who played the Punchline in Atlanta recently, said, "This is like performing four days after Kennedy got shot."

"A couple of my friends worked [stand-up] last night, and they said the audience [laughter] was so over the top it was scary," Mr. Black adds. "People need a release. In this vale of tears, there's not a lot to help you keep your wits about you, and one thing that does is laughter."

At Dad's Garage, a small Atlanta theater company specializing in edgy humor and improvisation, artistic director Sean Daniels planned to go ahead with a new show, "Say You Love Satan." Despite being what he calls part of "the whole jaded Gen X thing," Mr. Daniels said this week was different. "We had rehearsals, and half our cast had little tags on their arms from giving blood. 'Heart' is not a Gen X word that gets used very often when it comes to being patriotic, but there were people wanting to put flags out."

There were flags aplenty as the World Wrestling Federation staged its televised "Smackdown!" on UPN as scheduled Thursday night. Multimillionaire owner Vince McMahon and his husky entertainers turned the evening into a huge patriotic pep rally. "Tonight, the spirit of America lives here," Mr. McMahon roared in the ring as the crowd chanted "USA, USA."

Of course, all this talk of returning to the status quo will be irrelevant in case of more terrorist attacks, or if U.S. retaliation triggers a long-running chain reaction of televised mayhem, or a real, ongoing war.

"Then I think you're talking a fundamental shift in the culture like we saw in World War II," says Syracuse University's Mr. Thompson, "where the stories we told and the songs we sang changed dramatically."

Barring that, however, the same public appetites and demands that built the nothing-is-sacred pop culture of the last 20 years probably will spring up again.

"It's amazing how quickly our memory fades and we go back to normal," says Alvin Boskoff, professor emeritus of sociology at Emory University in Atlanta.

"The upside of this tragedy is that it might push the culture out of the era of American irony and modern hip," Mr. Thompson says. "How can you do the wiseguy thing after Sept. 11?"

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