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LAUGHING MATTERS <br> AFTER THE SHOCK AND SADNESS OF SEPTEMBER, PEOPLE ARE ABLE TO SHARE SOME LIGHTER MOMENTS AGAIN. BUT COMICS FIND THEMSELVES WALKING A FINE LINE BETWEEN HUMOR AND INSENSITIVITY.

Diane Marks didn't do one of her favorite things last month.

Actually, she couldn't do it is more accurate.

Marks loves to laugh. But no matter how hard she tried, it wouldn't happen. All she could do, she says, was stare at the TV and watch and watch and watch. "I normally feel great when I laugh," says Marks, a trim, blond fortysomething woman from Cheektowaga. "But it was such a long time before I could stop watching the news, or feel like it was even OK to think about doing something else."

Aaron Crowley is known as the joker in his Buffalo family. But he also found it hard to wisecrack or smile for many weeks after Sept. 11. He even began flipping past two of his favorite cable channels -- Comedy Central and BET -- because, "I didn't feel like (laughing). It seemed disrespectful" to all who died in Washington, D.C., New York City and the field in Pennsylvania.

Deb Fitzner, of Buffalo, was also ambivalent about seeking comic relief or letting herself laugh in the weeks after the attacks. "Laughter's part of life, it has to go on," she said. "But at first you didn't know, well, what is funny?"

What, indeed?

Just as it's been nearly impossible to go back to our "normal" lives, so has it been nearly impossible for Americans to figure out when to laugh again.

For nearly a month, it was hard to say when comedy would return, or what it would be like when it did.

But then came the shot heard 'round the world -- the one signaling that comedy was not just back, it was back with a vengeance.

Jerry Seinfeld stood center stage at Carnegie Hall, headlining the "Stand Up for New York" comedy fund-raiser for terrorism victims. And as the audience watched and listened, he began a gentle musing on whether rebuilding the World Trade Center was the best way to defy the terrorists and send them a message. "I have a better idea," drawled Seinfeld, who built his career on piercing but expletive-free observations on life. "Let's put up three towers."

He paused.

"We can name them 'Go. $#@!. Yourselves!' "

The audience gasped, then erupted with a thunder clap of applause and cheers.

It was, say many area and national comics, the sign America seemed to have been waiting for.

"I'll bet you Seinfeld will never say that word again. He won't need to," John Acrosta, who does audience warm-up for "Politically Incorrect," told The News during a phone interview last week.

"He's sent out the message: The venom is out there, and the gloves are off."

And how.

'He's still a target'

While no one dares talk about the victims, their families or those who gave their lives trying to save others, virtually everything else about Sept. 11 has slowly but surely become fodder for comics and humor writers.

From the media and humanitarian food drops, to the hijackers, Osama bin Laden and even New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, all's fair in comedy and war.

Witness stand-up comic Colin Quinn, who, moments after Giuliani greeted the Carnegie Hall audience and then departed, took the microphone and asked: "What, Giuliani left already? Good. Thank God. He's still a target."

The audience shrieked -- as it did later on when Chris Rock observed dryly that many in the largely white, affluent audience seemed awfully ready to go to war in Afghanistan "when most of y'all ain't even ready to go to the Bronx."

Joke e-mails have been making the rounds, too. One titled "Could it be?..." shows side-by-side pictures of Osama bin Laden: one depicts him with his beard and head cover, and the other without them, revealing that bin Laden might actually be O.J. Simpson.

As many comics and writers inch their way back from their somber sabbatical, a question lingers in their minds and ours:

What will be funny, after this?

Ready -- or not?

Rescue and recovery crews were still finding pockets of fire in the World Trade Center and Pentagon rubble when WGRF 97-Rock FM morning personality Rob Lederman got his first inkling of how difficult being funny for a living is now.

On Sept. 15, the comic showed up to do a show at the Majestic Theatre in North Tonawanda, and found the place looking "like the WWF of comedy."

"It was packed and full of people just so full of anger and desperate to find a release valve. People had the mind-set, well, we can't bomb the $#@! out of 'em yet, so let's just mock the $#@! out of them until then."

Problem: People, it turned out, were not quite as ready to laugh as they thought they were.

"It was a very touchy night," Lederman recalled. The next Monday, back on the air, he tried again. "Boy, you gotta believe George W. Bush is drinking again," he said. Several staffers in the studio, he said, cringed.

"Eventually, a lot of (comics) just wound up calling each other to tell jokes, because we had to get them out of our systems and we could tell (other) people were not ready to hear it," Lederman said.

Acrosta, who lives in Los Angeles but is still close friends with Lederman, agreed.

"I was on the phone with another friend of mine -- a sick individual like myself," he joked, "and for about three or four days in a row, we just had to get it all out. I'd basically cried for that entire first week, and I really needed to laugh, to see if I was still myself."

Nick Siracuse, the Fredonia comic and longtime joke-writer for Jay Leno of "The Tonight Show," tried to write a few days after the attacks. After about a half-hour, he gave up.

"It was just too soon for me," he recalled. "And then I started to worry, after about a week, well, what if (the other writers) expect something from me?"

As it turned out, they didn't. Leno, David Letterman, Conan O'Brien and other late-night pundits stayed off the air for a full week, and were respectfully somber -- and conspicuously unfunny -- for several nights after returning.

Even when Siracuse did write his first post-attack joke for Leno, it was a fairly benign one, asking why multibillionaire Bill Gates didn't simply buy Afghanistan "for like, maybe 11 billion" and turn it into rental property so he could control who lived there.

Leno's audience chuckled. "It was a start," said Siracuse.

At the Comix Cafe in the Town of Tonawanda, owner Randy Reese said "people started calling and coming in about two weeks after it happened. But it was slow. And they did a lot of looking around to see who was laughing, or if they should be."

The comics were also checking each other out, he said.

"I heard a lot of them saying, 'Do you think it's too soon for this joke?' or 'You think they're ready for this?' "

Some got their answers the hard way, including the first comic to headline at the club after Sept. 11.

"He goes right into a bit about cell phones, how amazing it was that so many people called their loved ones from the airplane to say goodbye from thousands of miles away, and then he says, 'Jeez, I can't get my calls to go through when I drive under a bridge!' " said Reese, wincing as he repeated the bit.

"The guy got heckled right off the stage."

And some professional funny men simply began to dread their chosen careers.

"A lot of us just went out that first time and said right to the audience, 'OK, let's just try and get through this together,' " said Detroit comic Jim Hamm, who did several shows at the Comix Cafe earlier this month.

He has a friend, a Detroit firefighter, who bases his entire comedy routine on his day job, and worried for days that he would upset people by walking on stage in his outfit.

"He did it," Hamm said. "but it was kind of sad. He just got up and said, 'Look, I just gotta do this, I gotta keep going.' "

But after treading lightly around the topic, or avoiding it outright, many humor writers and comics said it became clear after several weeks that people were ready to laugh again, and, in fact, needed to.

"Comics are like jockeys on race horses," observed John Valby, the Western New Yorker who for 30 years has been singing limericks under the name "Dr. Dirty" at college campuses and bars across the world.

"You're only as good as the race horse, or the audience, under you. And right now, that horse is really alive. It is ready to rock. It really needs to run."

Laughing in the trenches

Reese knew life was moving forward when one comic got up on stage at his club about two weeks ago, loudly announced his name and then shouted, "I'm from India, and I had nothing to do with it!"

The audience laughed immediately.

Valby, who left for a two-week tour of Amsterdam soon after the attacks, sensed it when he returned and walked onto a college-pub stage in New Haven, Conn., to the raucous crowd chant "USA! USA!"

"I didn't want to be there, but when I heard that, that was the moment I came back to who I was," said Valby, who since has written several ditties about Osama bin Laden, including one in which he rhymes "Osama" with "llama" "yo' mama" and "pajama."

"We're letting out a lot of emotions these days," Valby chuckles.

Siracuse, too, was a bit surprised at what recently was deemed perfectly OK by humor-craving audiences.

"I said one night, 'Y'know, I don't want to admit that I'm getting paranoid or that this terrorism stuff is getting to me, but last night my wife stepped out of the shower with a towel wrapped around her head, and I took a swing at her.' It was fine. People laughed."

When Lederman told that joke recently during a show at Comix Cafe, most in the audience thought it was a good one, too.

"I'm a veteran, and we know what it's like to laugh in the bunkers and the trenches," explained Richard Fitzner, a Vietnam veteran who drove in from Rochester to meet up with three friends, have a few beers and, he hoped, some laughs.

He got them all night, he said, particularly from Hamm, who decided to steer clear of dicey material in the wake of that afternoon's FBI announcement of possible imminent attacks.

Even so, Hamm -- to use the parlance of comics -- kills with his riffs on the lottery and stupid criminals.

Through the thick cigarette smoke, at tables filled with drinks, the audience rocks with laughter, shaking their heads in recognition.

Toward the back of the room, a blond in a white tank top is laughing so hard she is crying, wiping tears and mascara from under her eyes, the candlelight from her table glinting off the metallic American flag decal on her shirt ... laughing, laughing, laughing like there's no tomorrow.

e-mail lgithens@buffnews.com