The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Mr President, Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam
- black humour on tv screens

Comedians around the world have declared there won’t be any ceasefire for this war.

From Cologne to California and London to Lebanon humuorists have been aiming their satire at the war in Iraq, laughing at some of the media coverage while mocking Presidents Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush.

Although it may seem tasteless to be cracking jokes on late night television programmes about a war in progress, political analysts say the widespread public opposition in many countries has created an unusually thick buffer to this conflict.

And some network executives have defended their decision to unleash comedians pouring scorn on the war because they believe viewers are seeking relief from it. They also point out that the war was no surprise because of its long build-up. And above all other arguments — they note that the ratings remain high.

“After the Americans, British and Australians, the Polish have now arrived in Iraq — what are they going to do' Steal the tank wheels'” said German comedian Stefan Raab in his programme. “The German soccer team just had a great struggle to end up with a 1-1 draw against tiny Lithuania, a pipsqueak nation with a poor defence. America’s army is having the same problem.”

Even American comedians are lobbing their best lines of derision at the US-led war, not even sparing Bush in their digs that some consider out of line and even sacrilege.

“Did you know that ‘Iraq’ is Arabic for ‘Vietnam’,” said Tonight show host Jay Leno recently. “President Bush said if Iraq gets rid of Saddam, he’ll help the Iraqi people with food, medicine, supplies, housing, education. Isn’t that amazing' He finally comes up with a domestic agenda. And for Iraq! Maybe we could bring that here.”

Jokes on the war, Bush, and the at times breathless reports from broadcast journalists with little to report have spread in Europe, Asia, the Americas and Australia. Even a top New Zealand government official shared a favourite joke with journalists: “Bush got a coded message from Saddam that read: ‘370HSSV-0773H’,” the official said. “Bush was stumped and sent for the CIA. The CIA also had no answer, so it was sent to Bill Clinton. He suggested turning it upside down.”

American television comedians have been especially hard on Bush, hitting the president who has been a target of worldwide criticism for launching the war against Iraq without UN backing with a steady stream of withering one-liners. “This war is not about oil — it’s about gasoline,” said a deadpan Leno. He added that he could think of five reasons to attack Iraq: “Shell, Exxon, Mobil, Texaco and BP,” said Leno, whose popular programme can also be seen in many countries abroad.

“President Bush said this Iraq situation looks like ‘The re-run of a bad movie.’ Well sure, there’s a Bush in the White House, the economy’s going to hell, we’re going to war over oil — I’ve seen this movie, haven’t I'”

But Leno has also ridiculed Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein. “Saddam has raised the amount going to suicide bombers from $10,000 to $25,000,” Leno said after an Iraqi officer killed four American soldiers in a suicide attack on Saturday. “What’s next' A health care plan'”

David Letterman and Conan O’Brien have also taken pot shots. “Experts say Iraq may have nuclear weapons. That’s the bad news. The good news is they have to drop it with a camel.” O’Brien mocked Britain’s reputation for unappetising meals. “American and British troops handed out food to hundreds of Iraqis. Not surprisingly, Iraqis handed the British food back.”

Dietmar Herz, political scientist at Erfurt University, said comedians declared war on this war because they feel detached. “People are feeling a much greater distance to this war,” said Herz. “Humour is a way for people to come to terms with the internal conflicts. Germans feel a bond to the US but deplore this war. Jokes are a way for some to bridge that gap.”

German entertainer Thomas Gottschalk nevertheless felt a need to defend his decision to go ahead with his variety programme just two days after the war started. He told his audience “A little humour never hurts anyone.”

German network executives have also felt compelled to defend the gallows humour aired on channels next to news broadcasts showing mounting casualties on both sides of the war.

A spokeswoman for Raab’s Pro-7 network, Susanne Lang, said the Academy Awards went on as scheduled despite the war. “With the Academy Awards we saw there was scope for entertainment on television alongside the war,” Lang said. Helmut Thoma, former head of top-rated RTL, said there was no need to keep the comedians off the air. “The last war in 1991 shocked everyone,” he said.“Now, no one can stand being forced into mourning over this war.”

Harald Schmidt was among the first to satirise television journalists who talk a lot but say little. He also lampooned US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had dismissed France and Germany as the “old Europe” for their anti-war stance. “Iraq is fighting back — that is, the ‘old Iraq’ Rumsfeld says,” quipped Schmidt, Germany’s answer to Leno. “Bush is going to have to finish this war himself — he doesn’t have a son who can do it for him later.”

Schmidt has awarded mock marks to journalists doing live stand-up reports from Baghdad for their “hairstyle, outfit, background and nerves”. He gave top marks to a reporter whose long dark wavy hair defied Iraqi windstorms and stayed in place.

“There are just too many war programmes on television — they’re ruining this war,” Schmidt said to thunderous applause.

In France, where anti-war sentiment is widespread, there have been few jokes about Iraq. A notable exception has been Plantu, front-page cartoonist for the daily Le Monde, who has been wielding his caustic pen against the US. In one cartoon, a US soldier steps onto a lunar landscape and says, paraphrasing Neil Armstrong’s famous comment,“It’s one small step for giant step for stupidity.”

The Israeli newspaper Maariv ran a picture of American soldiers captured last week by Iraq forces. “Terrific achievement for the US,” it wrote alongside a picture of the POWs. “Despite the sandstorm, seven Americans already made it to Baghdad.”

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