For more than 20 years, Bobby Kelton has been a stand-up comedian performing under the most trying conditions: a 100-degree fever, personal grief and a certain down-in-the dumps mood.
But none of that matched having to stand in front of an audience hours after terrorists had hijacked four jets and smashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a wide-open field in Pennsylvania.
"How do you deal with it?" asked Kelton, a Los Angeles resident who has appeared on "The Tonight Show" and "The Late Show with David Letterman."
Still, the show went on. More than 100 people showed up at The Improv at Harrah's Lake Tahoe to see Kelton and fellow comedians David Gee and Howie Nave.
The challenge for the trio was not only to deliver an upbeat evening of entertainment, but to do it in a tasteful way that avoided references to politics, death, terrorists, airlines or traveling.
Any jokes about New Yorkers were strictly off limits.
And that will be the challenge for months to come. Los Angeles is one of the country's premier comedy centers with large and small clubs sprinkled all over town. There's the venerable Comedy Store in West Hollywood to the less familiar Lulu's Beehive in Studio City.
On any given night, the roster of performers range from up-and-comers honing their skills to veterans working on material before it reaches network TV.
The pros will have little problem resorting to evergreen material that will get them through a sensitive time. The novices, who often depend on topical or crude humor, face a bigger hurdle.Scrapped entire routine
Deborah Praver, a relatively new comedian, was panicked about an upcoming performance at The Hollywood Improv because her whole repertoire centered on traveling by air from New York to Los Angeles. "I had to scrap it," she noted. "I'm probably going to do some material about working at Disneyland in the Electric Parade. But I am still kind of nervous because Disney is a huge capitalist icon."
Preparing for his Sept. 11 show, Kelton had a slew of jokes about air travel, including involving the questions airline employees ask upon check in. ("Did any strangers give you any gifts on the way to the airport?" Kelton's reply: "I should be so lucky.")
Instead, he relied on jokes about personal relationships and observations. He ended up telling jokes like, "Why is it that with birthday cakes you can blow on them and spit on them and everyone rushes to get a piece?"
Kelton's colleague, David Gee, also had adjustments to make. He normally does a slew of political jokes, including gags about Dick Cheney's new pacemaker. ("Here's a scary thought. During the two hours that Dick Cheney was under anesthesia, George W. Bush was actually running the country.")
That stuff was tossed. Instead he relied on safe witticisms about gambling and podunk towns like Elko, Nevada. He even threw in a few impressions of actors to round out the evening.Waiting it out
Comedians aren't sure how long it will take before they can touch on the sensitive subjects they normally lampoon. This is not like the Persian Gulf War in 1991 when political and military jokes were considered to be in bad taste for only a few weeks. This was an attack on U.S. soil that has left the country's' citizens yearning for some uplifting moments without being reminded of the tragedy.
It could be nearly a year or more before comedy returns to its old steady pace. Both Letterman and Jay Leno appeared more as consolers than comedians during their late-night shows last week.
"You need to gauge your crowd and be united on what can be the butt of a joke," explained entertainer Judy Carter, who has written two books on comedy and teaches a workshop.
Carter was performing days after the tragedy and had to chop about one-quarter of her material that was very political. Instead, she told jokes about personal relationships gone bad and drugs. "I talk about being a baby boomer. I say things like 'I remember taking acid as a kid, but now all I'm taking is antacid.'"
Al Lubel, was doing a number of jokes about death and flying a month ago when he appeared on "The Late Show with David Letterman." Now, the former attorney will be telling a lot of lawyer jokes.
Said comedian Maria Parkinson, who has a Don Rickles style of delivery she plans to tone down: "Comedy is like a good recipe. You need to adjust it for flavor."
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