NEW ORLEANS — Most customers walk into the Old Coffee Pot restaurant in the French Quarter, read the menu and burst out laughing.
The restaurant on cobblestoned St. Peter Street has served up platters of sweet lost bread and savory jambalaya for more than a century. After Hurricane Katrina, the staff added an entree: "M.R.E.: A hurricane Katrina favorite. Please order early. FEMA needs 4-7 days to ship. $782.90."
Each time waiter Guy Wenson is asked about it, he stares at the customer and, with a twinkle in his blue eyes, replies, "For an extra $10, I'll peel back the wrapping and 'prepare' it for you at your tableside."
It's a cute one-liner, worth a smile and a wink.
Here, the gag has diners bursting into breath-stealing giggles.
In a city that mourns its dead with cheerful brass bands, where the Catholic cycle of Lenten penitence is ushered in with a drunken party, laughter has always been a part of life. Now, as a culture of gallows humor grows among storm survivors, residents are turning their misery into a punch line.
The gibes -- sometimes grim, often silly -- can be found everywhere.
Shops are selling out of refrigerator magnets in the shape of maggots, a nod to the insects that infested kitchens after Katrina. Drivers slap on bumper stickers proclaiming, "New Orleans: Proud to Swim Home." Residents smirk over T-shirts that read, "I Survived Katrina and All I Have Is This Shirt ... Really."
New Orleans' Audubon Zoo has outfitted its alligator exhibit with a mock swamp house, complete with a duct-tape-covered refrigerator, a box of military-issued Meals Ready to Eat, and a search-and-rescue sign that reads "8 Gators -- fed." (Most houses in the city still carry markings of the block-by-block rescue effort, including neon-colored messages spray-painted on roofs and doors that stated what animals were found and whether they had been fed.)
Comedy clubs throughout the Gulf Coast say business is growing. Before the storm, comedians tested their material each Wednesday night at Lucy's Retired Surfers Bar and Restaurant in the city's warehouse district to a handful of patrons.
Now, a crowd of 40 is considered a slow night.
"You have to laugh, or you'll commit suicide," said co-host Bill Dykes, who runs stand-up events at different clubs here. "People are hungry for jokes."
It doesn't surprise comedian Dane Faucheux that an audience would howl even over jokes that simply play on words. After spending months living out of a suitcase, in a place without reliable power or phone service, many people long to giggle at someone else's harsh reality -- as well as their own.
On a recent Wednesday night at Lucy's, Faucheux stepped onto a plywood stage. He scanned the crowd inside the smoky downtown bar, calmly gauging the mood in the candle-lit room.
It was a motley crew, a cross section of those who refused to leave after Katrina, and those who arrived because of it. A building contractor slumped over his beer at one table. Nearby, a frazzled-looking emergency room nurse, weary from working back-to-back shifts, sat next to a couple of bartenders.
Taking a deep breath, Faucheux, 27, launched into his shtick.
"So, I lost my apartment in the storm," he said. "I found it two streets away."
Gales of laughter and applause fill the room. Several people nodded their head in wry understanding. One woman shouted, "Me too!"
"I'm so glad my pain can make you laugh," Faucheux deadpanned. "You're all sick. Thank you very much."
"Chasing after Moses, the Pharaoh came to the shore of the parted Red Sea, cast his eyes toward the heavens and asked God, 'Lord, may we also cross?' God replied, 'Sure, Pharaoh. I don't see why not. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers swears the walls are secure and it won't flood.' "
-- Joke told by engineers in New Orleans
Before Katrina hit, killing more than 1,000 people in the region and driving away more than two-thirds of New Orleans residents, the city was a tough place for comics. There were few venues for stand-up comics to hone their craft. After all, they said, how can anyone compete against the antics on Bourbon Street, or the storytelling traditions of the South?
"People here are just funny unconsciously," said stand-up comic Mike Strecker, whose day job is director of public relations at Tulane University. "The precariousness of our living situation -- where the threat of hurricanes and flooding has always been there in the background -- inspires a comic view of life. We laugh loud and live large. It's normal here."
This steamy Mississippi River port city -- which has survived slavery, piracy, Civil War and racial rioting -- has routinely turned misery and decay into something artistic, beautiful or amusing. The music of slaves metamorphosed into jazz in the bordellos of Basin Street, while murky swampland gave birth to ornate cemeteries. The Mardi Gras parades have long been a chance for groups to mock local politics.