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Humor can't escape partisan political fights

WASHINGTON - There's nothing un-funnier than Saturday night's jokes reviewed by the caffeinated light of Monday morning, which is why we probably shouldn't quarterback a comedian over coffee when she was performing for a crowd primed on cocktails.

That reasonable rule seems not to apply, however, when the venue is the White House Correspondents' Association dinner and one of the revelers happens to be the president of the United States. Whether he laughs, smiles or frowns carries political freight far beyond the moment.

Washington buzz lately has become a buzz saw.

In the days since the correspondents' dinner, reaction to Barack Obama's reaction to Wanda Sykes' one-liners has resembled a confederacy of scolds. What dreary, sensitive wretches we've become.

Do I think Sykes was a monument to hilarity? No, but she was funny much of the time. Do I think her now-infamous Rush Limbaugh jokes were over the top? Yeah. That's a comedian for you. Do I think her performance - and Obama's apparent amusement - marks the decline of civilization? This is hardly a new development.

I do think we take ourselves far too seriously - and literally.

For those who've somehow managed to avoid the controversy, Sykes joked that Limbaugh, whom she compared to Osama bin Laden, might have been the 20th hijacker, but was "just so strung out on OxyContin he missed his flight." She also suggested that Rush might be guilty of treason for hoping Obama's policies fail.

In a final flourish, she said: "Rush Limbaugh, 'I hope the country fails' - I hope his kidneys fail, how about that? He needs a waterboarding, that's what he needs."

Ho ho ho. The audience did not, in fact, roar with laughter, at least not compared to other jokes during the evening. From where I sat, most who laughed were reacting to the outrageousness of the "joke." Even Sykes acknowledged that she'd gone too far, but noted that we'd be talking about it later. She got that part right.

My own thought at the time was: "Oh dear. She just gave Rush the gift of a lifetime." But as a committed non-literalist, I assumed Sykes didn't really think that Rush is a terrorist, that she didn't really hope he suffers kidney failure, or that he needs a good waterboarding.

Rush Limbaugh is rich in satire ops - and Sykes missed them. That the president was captured on video laughing during the joke, alas, was also a gift to the sorry-loser crowd. One minute he's handing the queen an iPod, the next he's laughing at dumb jokes. What's next? Invading a country?

Let's be clear. The joke was a dud. But you'd think from the scurrying of tiny feet that we were on the verge of appointing a Special Commission on Acceptable Humor. Don't laugh. At this rate, it may be coming.

If Sykes deserves criticism, it's for being un-clever. To be funny, a joke has to reveal some truth buried deep in the collective psyche, as when Sykes said she wouldn't need to waterboard Sean Hannity to get information, because all she'd need to do is put him in a middle seat in coach.

Now that's funny - not because we infer that Hannity is a diva, but because we're all divas when it comes to the middle seat. We have personal experience with that bit of torture. During a recent four-hour flight wedged between two folks who've apparently yet to decline dessert, I'd have confessed to whatever Sykes wanted for an upgrade to first class.

Alas, the joke on Limbaugh bore no resemblance to truth, and therefore wasn't funny. She didn't get under our skin with a scalpel; she hit us over the head with a cudgel. Limbaugh isn't like bin Laden or a 9/11 hijacker. His dislike of Obama's policies and his hope that they fail do not equate to hoping the country fails. No one's drug addiction is amusing.

That said, the punch lines weren't as awful as they now seem after numerous reruns. Nothing's funny the 27th time. What's clear, meanwhile, is that even humor has become a partisan affair. If you're not a fan of Limbaugh, you laughed. If you don't like Obama, you were ratified in your certitude that the president isn't up to snuff.

Lost in the frenzy is the more important matter of our thin-skinned intolerance and our reflexive lurch to take offense. We might remind ourselves that it's always the fanatics who can't take a joke.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker at kparker@kparker.com.