Searching for Comedy Amid Iraq's Tragedies


BAGHDAD, March 13, 2006 — -- Many people -- including top officials in the Bush administration -- think the media coverage of the war is too negative. They say there are too many stories about body counts of soldiers and Iraqis, about car bombs and carnage, and sectarian strife teetering precipitously on the brink of civil war. And not enough about all the good that's been achieved.

It's not entirely an unfair criticism. There are success stories.

With the country's new freedom of speech, for instance, there are more comedy shows in production on Iraqi TV than during the reign of Saddam Hussein. We in the ABC News Baghdad bureau were intrigued as we watched these shows. What must it be like, we wondered, to try to make Iraqis laugh?

We called Iraqi TV and spoke with Amjad Hameed, head of the entertainment division, and asked if we could profile one of his new shows. He was happy to help, and was particularly excited about A new show called "Me and Layla" -- starring the Danny DeVito of Iraq, Odei Abdel-Sattar -- is a sitcom about a hapless romantic. Fifteen half-hour episodes of "Me and Layla" are scheduled to debut on Iraqi TV next month.

On the North Baghdad set of "Me and Layla," the show's producer, Mazen Mohammed Mustafa, told ABC News that it was easy to make an Iraqi audience cry -- the challenge was making audience members laugh.

"It's our goal to make Iraqis forget about the misery and violence of daily life here," he said, adding that Iraqis like political comedy now -- poking fun at social issues and politicians.

Comedy has been a struggle here for quite some time. In the 1990s, a Kurdish comedy troupe had a routine about Saddam Hussein -- that is, of course, until Saddam reportedly sent an assassin to have the troupe members killed.

But the lack of security in present-day Iraq also means comedy can still quickly be overtaken by tragedy.

During the ABC News visit, Mustafa received some terrible news. He grabbed the show's director to tell him: Their boss, Amjad Hameed -- the head of the entertainment division for Iraqi TV, the man who had arranged for the shoot -- just minutes before had been assassinated, shot by gunmen on his way to work. Both he and his driver were killed.

The director then told the rest of the crew. Within moments, what had been a set full of fun and laughter quickly became one full of fear.

"It'd very hard to do comedy in such circumstances," Abdel-Sattar said.

The cast and crew were told to go home, and ABC News' crew was not far behind them.

Why would Hameed be killed? There doesn't need to be a reason for such things in Iraq these days. But this could be another case of sectarian violence. Theoretically, Iraqi TV is thought to be supportive of Shiite political parties.

Earlier in the week, an anchor on the Sunni-leaning Baghdad Television channel was assassinated as well.

By the time the ABC News staff got back to the bureau, Iraqi TV had put a black band of mourning in the top, left corner on its screen in memoriam to Hameed.

And there went the effort to show comedians trying to make Iraqis smile again.

It ended with the funeral of the man who helped put the story together -- a horrible, gruesome, perfect metaphor for day-to-day life in postwar Iraq.

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