Clinton Crisis: Stand-up comics fail to see funny side of Clinton fiasco

CIGARS, ANYONE? How about a little tearful repentance over breakfast? Much of the White House fiasco sounds like the script of a raunchy, off- the-wall comedy show.

But America's comics are treading around the Clinton crisis with uncharacteristic caution, apparently unsure whether to laugh or wince.

At Sunday night's Emmy ceremony in Hollywood, usually an opportunity for presenters to let rip on the big issues of the day, the scandal in Washington was largely ignored. A roster of stars, from Tom Hanks down, were all given cues to spill out Clinton jokes, but few seized them.

"This is not the place," said a stern-faced Billy Crystal, the television awards' master of ceremonies. "It's such a horrible thing. It's not funny to me, it's sad."

Those who tried to make light of the Starr report's explicit sexual detail ended up sounding rather lame. "Early in comedy this was used as a prop," ventured the comedian Chris Rock as he brandished a lengthy cigar. "It still is."

Elsewhere on the airwaves, the doyen of late-night chat shows, David Letterman, barely gave the Clinton affair a mention. Only Jay Leno, host of The Tonight Show, really relished the subject and breathed any life into it.

"This Ken Starr report is now posted on the Internet. I'll bet Clinton's glad he put a computer in every classroom now," said Leno. "I think secretly he's bragging to his buddies in the White House locker room: `Yeah, they investigated my sex life. Needed 36 boxes'."

Part of the problem for the nation's comics is that oral sex, masturbation with a cigar, and the rest, are not normally considered subjects fit for airing on network television.

Comedians, far more acutely than members of Congress, have to consider public sensibilities, and the public is more embarrassed than amused.

Letters in the US newspapers complained yesterday about the unnecessary explicitness of Ken Starr's revelations, and recounted endless anecdotes of the difficulties in explaining the whole thing to over-inquisitive children.

Sharper wit came from political columnists. Ronald Brownstein, writing in the Los Angeles Times, described the Starr report as "an X-rated version of `Green Eggs and Ham'," the children's classic by Dr Seuss: "Did they fondle on the desk? Did they fondle in the mess? Was the President on the phone? Did she talk dirty from her home?"

The joke seems to be as much on Ken Starr as Bill Clinton.