For country in need of laugh, joke ends up being on Maher

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This is a column about comedy. It's not funny.

It's not funny because of Bill Maher. He also isn't funny. Which, these days, is a problem.

Mr. Maher is host of "Politically Incorrect," the ABC late night show in which guests from the evil-twin realms of public life-politics and entertainment-preen, showboat and display their ignorance. Mr. Maher, previously a moderately successful stand-up comic, lords over the proceedings with a disdainful hauteur.

Mr. Maher is in a bit of hot water right now because, six days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he took issue on his show with the description of the murderers as cowards. "We have been the cowards," Mr. Maher said, "lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."

Typically fatuous and glib, Mr. Maher had taken the second half of his show's title to heart. The acts were, in fact, cowardly, at least according to one standard definition, which brands as a coward a person who does not stick around to face the consequences of his actions. Suicides are routinely called cowardly for just this reason. Most of them don't take 6,000 others with them.

If you accept this definition, you might now want to apply it to Mr. Maher. He rapidly apologized for his unfortunate comments, most likely to woo back the advertisers-Sears and Federal Express-and affiliates that dropped his show. The published descriptions of his groveling make him sound like a man unwilling to face the consequences of his convictions.

That's too bad. Once the horror of what the nation suffered subsides, the U.S. and the world will be in real need of what Mr. Maher purports to, but doesn't, provide: heroic humor. Even in the best of times, good comedians-those with acuity and courage-can cast a few sharp words across the conformities, deformities and pieties of a culture and force us to laugh at them, and ourselves. (Peace, Graydon Carter: We haven't reached the "end of irony" any more than we reached the "end of ideology" in the 1980s.) Whether played by Aristophanes in the fifth century B.C., Mort Sahl in the `60s or Dario Fo today, such comic commentators perform a necessary role in a democratic society, making sure we're appropriately irreverent lest our seriousness of purpose lead us to chip away at the very things we're supposed to cherish and protect.

Needless to say, Bill Maher is no Mort Sahl, and he's certainly no Aristophanes (some of whose lines cannot be repeated in a family trade journal 2,500 years after they were first written). Which is a shame, because "politically incorrect" humor is just the thing we need to help us work through the ironies of the moment. At the risk of my own banishment, these include:

* New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani justifying a term extension for himself by repeating "it should be obvious" when, really, it's not. (Just because we admire his leadership in this crisis doesn't mean we have to disregard his traditional despotic tendencies.)

* A preppy U.S. president who uses Texas twang to describe the pursuit of murderous mullahs across a desert worlds away from the Mexican border. (We can unite behind him while still recognizing his apparently inherited limpness with language.)

* The new, critical need for absolutely clean underwear when traveling. (If security personnel are going to empty your carry-on in full sight of fellow passengers, you'd better be prepared.)

* Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and our own home-grown Osamas. (Really, the only way to deal with people who blame the ACLU, gays and God for the terrorist attacks is ridicule.)

Yeah, we could all use a good laugh.

Mr. Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz-Allen & Hamilton.

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