Joe Queenan
May 13, 1996 12:00 PM

AMERICANS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN OF TWO minds about jokes in poor taste. On the one hand, we profess to be horrified by the exploits of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer; on the other hand, we are neither surprised nor outraged when our coworkers, bartenders and talk show hosts transform hideous crimes into rich comic material.

Certain subjects—the Holocaust, AIDS, the death of small children—still seem to be considered off-limits as comic fodder, but apart from that, just about anything goes. As was evident throughout the O.J. Simpson trial, this sublimation of unspeakable tragedy into a national yuckfest seems to have a therapeutic effect on the public. And now The Tonight Show’s Dancing Itos have been replaced by Dancing Unabombers. Perhaps such bits are a subconscious way of defanging terrifying figures, making them seem pathetic or, worse, uncool. Or maybe some folks just need ratings.

Since bad-taste humor on TV is here to stay, the only question is: Is there anyone who, on the subject of the Unabomber, has consistently risen above the sophomoric—whose jokes have something more than shock value? The answer is David Letterman. Having generally steered clear of O.J. cracks, while Jay Leno worked the trial relentlessly for a larger audience share, Letterman is now thriving off the Unabomber. Though Leno, Conan O’Brien and Bill Maher of Politically Incorrect have all launched a number of inspired barbs at the eminently vulnerable Ted Kaczynski, Letterman’s monologues have outclassed them all.

One night, Letterman reported that Kato Kaelin had called the Unabomber to see if he could camp out in his cabin for a couple of months. Another night, he asked why it is that the Postal Service always manages to lose Christmas packages to Mom but never fails to deliver explosive devices from mad bombers. But the best joke of all was when Letterman mentioned Gov. Pete Wilson’s efforts to try the alleged Unabomber in California.

“You have a high-profile murder case, plenty of evidence,” Letterman said. “Let me tell you something, ladies and gentlemen: You try this case in California, and in six months the Unabomber is playing golf with O.J.” Touché.

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