No Strings Attached

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If the Sept. 11 attacks on the u.s. changed the world, were they also, as some suggest, responsible for the death of irony? Not in France, and certainly not at Les Guignols de l'Info, the long-running TV satire of current events featuring caricature marionettes of prominent newsmakers. Far from bending to what the show's writers' describe as "terrorism correctness," the Guignols have incorporated events arising from Sept. 11 in their audacious-some say outrageous-nightly parody of the news.

Not everyone is amused. Some viewers claim the Guignols' no-holds-barred style of humor is both inappropriately applied to terrorism and intentionally offensive. Guignol creators are "happy when their program sparks controversy, citing it as proof they've done their work of provocation well," fumes former fan Erik Svane in a letter to Le Monde. Svane and others think depictions of Bush as intellectually challenged or Osama bin Laden triumphantly singing It's Raining Planes are beyond the pale. Bruno Gaccio, a writer for the popular Canal Plus show, dismisses such criticism: "People thought it funny and fitting when we depicted George W. Bush as a moron before the attacks. Some of those same people criticize us now for continuing to call him a cretin. Since these events didn't make Bush smarter, I guess this change of attitude means our critics suddenly got dumber. We, in any case, haven't changed." Gaccio and his three co-writers insist that inclusion of the war on terror in scripts is essential to providing viewers both the parodied version of news they expect and some comic relief from an otherwise grim atmosphere. Ratings suggest they're right. Aired each weeknight just before the 8 p.m. network newscasts, the Guignols' seven-minute recap of the day's highlights often draws larger audiences than before the terror attacks. Over 3.5 million viewers now tune in, representing 14% of the total audience and 25% of the coveted 15-to-35 age group.

Any other program featuring images of a smoking Manhattan skyline with the headline "Allah 1, Jesus 0" might well expect rapid cancellation. But the Guignols have become an institution in France precisely by exaggerating what viewers suspect lurks under the surface of traditional news coverage -and saying the forbidden.

Its caricatures, meanwhile, have taken on lives of their own. Conservative French President Jacques Chirac's marionette-gregarious huckster, manipulator and master of the low blow-is so popular that it has made the real, scandal-plagued Chirac seem more sympathetic. Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin is cast as a workaholic policy geek whose schoolmarmish rigidity prompted other puppets to nickname him "bean up the butt." Celebrities are also deftly lampooned, from the doddering likeness of aging rocker Johnny Hallyday to a caricature of actress Sophie Marceau, whose entire film career was once attributed to her fans' "crappy taste." "Our freedom of speech has ensured the Guignols' success," Gaccio says. "But we also enjoy the right to be fired if it no longer works magic."

Media accusations that the Guignol charm is gone have been heard before, especially from pundits who envy the show's reputation for incisive political commentary in hip comic form. In 2000-less than a year after the show's 10th anniversary generated media adulation-critiques that the program had grown stale became so abundant that Guignol writers decided to tweak that news too, signing off one broadcast as though it were the last. The ensuing stir became front-page news. "I counted 172 articles on us in the three weeks after that show," Gaccio recalls. "They just couldn't understand the Guignols aren't real, it's fake news-it's just comedy. And I guess some still can't."

Despite renewed grumbling over the show's treatment of terror-related events, Gaccio predicts the Guignols will endure. In the meantime, he dreams of a U.S. version of the program. Though the current, intensely patriotic climate there would make such a venture a long shot, Gaccio says that if American audiences could get a brief dose of Guignol humor, their perceptions would never be the same again.