YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Some things just aren't that funny anymore

War has left comedians grasping for appropriate material, and one Hussein doppelganger has called it quits.

March 31, 2003|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Jerry Haleva used to get a kick out of being known here as the lobbyist who moonlights as Saddam Hussein.

He'd kid about his 12 years as the go-to guy for Hollywood casting agents in need of a mustachioed Iraqi strongman. He'd pose in his dictator costume for gag grip-and-grins with politicians. He'd tell people he was going to write a memoir -- "Looking Like Saddam and Other Lucky Breaks," he'd call it. He'd send clients marketing brochures with a shot of himself in his beret, shaking hands with former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. "If we can do this," joked the caption, "how tough can your issue be?"

They all laughed. Then the war started in Iraq, and people began dying. This week -- holed up in his office in a red tie, white and blue shirt and American flag cufflinks -- the staunch Republican said he's not much in the mood for discussing his secondary career.

TV news crews call, he doesn't call back. He's updating his marketing literature to downplay the Hussein thing. At a trade association banquet the other night, he said, Gov. Gray Davis told him, jokingly, "You know, my chief of staff had to dump that picture of herself with you." An old political hand, Haleva understood completely.

"What I do has always been in good fun," he said, "but some things are no longer funny. My physical resemblance to Saddam may well be one of them."

As the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq grinds on, the old adage about comedy being hard gets truer by the day. Four years ago, the creators of the animated feature "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" left audiences in stitches with their depiction of Hussein turning Satan into his sex toy. Last week found Steve Martin excising a Hussein joke from his Oscar routine on Sunday. Late-night monologues on Letterman and Leno haven't trod such a fine line since Sept. 11. At the Second City, Chicago's temple of improvisation and satire, players say the audience now boos bits that brought down the house as recently as last week.

Ensemble member David Pompeii said he was confronted outside the theater the other night by audience members who resented the troupe's revue (though they might have known what was in store for them by the new show's title, "No, Seriously, We're All Gonna Die").

"One woman was just, 'We're at war! You should be supporting our president! How can you say these things?' " reported Pompeii, who tried in vain to tell the woman that his own cousin is even now on the front lines.

The moral: "You can't take the audience to any place that might make them feel bad." But Americans are, yet again, discovering that the feel-good zone can shrink dramatically in wartime.

Haleva -- who has played the Iraqi dictator in a half-dozen movies, from "Hot Shots!" to "The Big Lebowski" -- said that as a political operative he knew that American tolerance for Hussein jokes would disintegrate the moment U.S. troops suffered casualties.

"We have a lot of brave people in harm's way over there, many of whom have already made the ultimate sacrifice," he said. "Making fun of Saddam Hussein in a situation like that is the least of our priorities."

That wasn't the case before the war started. Only a couple of years ago, for example, the Capitol Steps, the political satire troupe, brought Haleva onstage to help sing "Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iraq" to the tune of "Barbara Ann." As recently as the anniversary week of Sept. 11 -- six months ago -- he was asked to do his shtick at a political fund-raiser in Orange County for U.S. Rep. Chris Cox (R-Newport Beach).

"I very rarely do live performances," Haleva said. "I have a real job, after all, and don't want to find myself on the bar mitzvah circuit. But Chris is a friend, and he called and said, 'My speaker is [former Secretary of State] George Shultz, speaking about the threat of Saddam, and I think it would be a hoot if you came in and interrupted.' "

Cox, who has since been named chairman of the House panel overseeing the new Department of Homeland Security, assured him that Shultz, now a fellow at the Hoover Institution, would play along with it. "So as Shultz is delivering this stemwinder," Haleva said, "I come in in my uniform yelling, 'What do you know, George Shultz? You went from secretary of State to working for the Hoover vacuum company!' "

"It got a big laugh then," he said.

But by last Monday night -- amid reports of unspeakable carnage and U.S. troops killed and fragged and taken prisoner -- even the ordinarily jovial Haleva was unable to smile. At a politician-filled gala for the influential California Manufacturers & Technology Assn., he said, the Capitol Steps, that night's entertainment, reprised the "Barbara Ann" parody. Sitting with a corporate client who had heard Haleva's own Capitol Steps story, he winced as the room full of executives fell silent at the now almost grotesque "bomb-bomb-bomb" chorus.

"The audience was very uncomfortable, myself included. I couldn't believe they hadn't cut that material," he said.

Los Angeles Times Articles