The Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster is no laughing matter around the world as the fallout falls out. But it's a hot topic around the comedy circuit, pun intended.
What with the laugh meter invariably a good judge of how people are responding to events, as bad as the events might be, Calendar surveyed the comedy clubs around Los Angeles and found just what we presumed: The nuclear comedy level began rising along with the nuclear cloud.
Why? Some of the comics in question say that converting the horror of a meltdown into comic terms is some sort of emotional release, something like therapy.
The survey involved performances at the Improvisation and the Comedy Store in West Hollywood, the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach and the Ice House in Pasadena.
I like to watch the nuclear experts because they are always talking about how everything in life is a risk, like crossing the street is a risk ... but if I'm crossing the street and get hit by a car, they don't tell them not to eat fruit in Sweden.
Jay Leno is just about the hottest comic on the scene, but even he takes great caution with such a difficult subject.
His ability to judge whether a topic will go over with an audience has helped him with this grim subject: "When I am in a nightclub, I figure at the 8 o'clock show you get grandma and the kids, and the 2 a.m. crowd is a different audience.
"I look around the audience and I don't see anyone that looks like they are from Kiev . . . so I do the joke. I use my own common sense. I would not do it if the news was filled with half-torn victims or gory details . . . but when the Russians say 2 dead, 18 injured, it is so absurd. They must have my old PR firm."
His stand-up style amounts to slinging off-the-cuff, rapid-fire remarks, always testing for audience reaction: "All those people in Sweden are standing out by the beach trying to blow that cloud back the other way."
Timing is key to any comedian, especially on sensitive issues, he said. "Time has to pass. For example, when they had finally made an arrest in the Tylenol case and I told this joke: 'It is probably the same guy who had been changing the regular coffee and the Folger's instant.' When it happened the second time, I didn't feel it was appropriate, but with the Chernobyl accident you are laughing at the fact that it is the world's worst disaster. The joke is not about the people, it's about the system. . . .
"Come on! We might as well enjoy ourselves. That radiation cloud might not be here for another three or four days."
When I first heard the phrase "Chernobyl disaster" on the radio, I thought the reporter was announcing a "Cher Bono" disaster. I said to myself, "My God, she's designed another dress!"
Argus Hamilton, who has carved out a niche as a political comedian, said his material about the disaster comes from taking apart each bit of information the Soviets have released and reacting honestly to it.
"At first, the Russians claimed that only two people died as a result of the disaster. Maybe so at first. The two people who died were the guys who had to bring the news of the disaster to Gorbachev."
Jokes about the accident are Hamilton's defense mechanism against fear, he said. "If Russia were to declare World War III, everybody in the world would say, 'Fifteen minutes more to live.' I would say, 'I've got 15 minutes of material.' "
There's a general attempt at the Comedy Store to make the most of an opportunity: "If the nuclear disaster had occurred near the Comedy Store, our owner would have found some way to decorate it. Within 10 days, there'd have been a long line down Sunset to see the disaster."
Hamilton said, unlike most comics, he's got the nerve to take the disaster on humorously. When he sets up a joke, he uses the reaction (nodding agreement) of the crowd as consent to make fun of something. And he said he'll take on anything.
He's even proud to hit upon South Africa: "South Africa is centuries behind modern thought, and only 20 years behind Mississippi's. They wouldn't show 'Roots' until they renamed it 'Happy Days' and ran it backward so it would have a happy ending.
"Like most Americans, I was concerned (about Chernobyl) until I knew it wouldn't be affecting my weekend in California. While the poor Polish are taking iodine, (KNBC weatherman) Fritz Coleman is recommending collagen in the suntan lotion.
"But don't feel sorry for the Soviets, folks, they'll make the most of this. All that radioactivity will mix with their steroids and they'll win the three-legged race in the '88 Olympics."
How many Russians does it take to put out a nuclear fire?
Two. No . . . 2,000. Two. No . . . 2,000.
Yakov Smirnoff, a bearded Soviet expatriate who said he applied for a visa nine years ago (and got a MasterCard), uses the Soviets' excuses and attempts to hide the disaster as his nuclear angle. For Smirnoff, the latest Soviet disaster is just one more opportunity to make fun of all things Soviet.