Fifteen years after late night hosts and writers blended topical jokes about figures like Paris Hilton with recaps of the latest grisly events in Iraq, their attempts at finding humor in the conflict have become an odd time capsule.
Using a database of late-night jokes originally created for an academic study, HuffPost has compiled a list of Iraq War jokes to show how late night TV reacted to the war’s biggest milestones by pushing a format created for digs at celebrities and gentle political comedy into darker territory.
The vast majority of these jokes, intended for immediate consumption in 2003, don’t hold up in 2018. Many of them would also likely elicit waves of criticism if delivered today — another sign of how long it’s been since the U.S. invaded Iraq.
Here’s how the first year of the Iraq War looked through the lens of late night TV.
The Buildup To The War
“U.S. Military officials say the war plan for Iraq calls for us to drop 3,000 precision-guided bombs on the Iraqi leadership in the first 48 hours. Here’s my question. If they’re really precision-guided, why do we need 3,000 of them?” ― Jay Leno, March 7.
“The Pentagon still has not given a name to the Iraqi war. Somehow ‘Operation Reelect Bush’ doesn’t seem to be popular. Want to go with something a little more subtle.” ― Jay Leno, March 12.
“Today, the Motion Picture Academy said they would not cancel the Oscars even if war breaks out with Iraq. That’s what they said, yeah. Not gonna cancel it no matter what. Yeah. Yeah, when asked why, producers said, ‘There’s a good chance the war will end before our show does.‘” ― Conan O’ Brien, March 12.
The U.S.-Led Coalition Invades Iraq
“You think right about now, Saddam Hussein is suffering from Iraq-tile dysfunction? … With his army not performing. That’s Iraq-tile dysfunction. Very serious problem in Iraq.” ― Jay Leno, March 25.
“And the Pentagon said today another 100,000 troops headed to the Gulf. We have 250,000 there, another 100,000 are going over. They are calling this stage of the mission ‘Operation George Gone Wild.’” ― Jay Leno, April 1.
“Listen to this, according to the Pentagon, we may be running out of things to bomb in Baghdad. Earlier today, a cruise missile destroyed the Museum of Rubble.” ― David Letterman, April 2.
“Iraq’s elite Republican Guard, their elite Republican Guard is doing so bad now, they have changed the name to the Democratic Guard.” ― David Letterman, April 3.
U.S. Marines walk pass a dismantled statue of Saddam Hussein on Baghdad’s al-Fardous square on April 10, 2003.
American Troops Take Baghdad
“Of course you know the big story; our troops have taken over Baghdad. I guess you all know that. Being warmly greeted by the Iraqi people. Have you seen it on TV? I mean, these Iraqis are celebrating this victory. They’re looting stores. They’re running wild in the streets, or as we call it in LA, an NBA championship.” ― Jay Leno, April 10.
“Ladies and gentlemen, here is the good news: We have defeated Saddam Hussein and Iraq. The good news is Iraq is ours, and the bad news is Iraq is ours.” ― David Letterman, April 10.
“U.S. troops blew up a 40-foot statue of Saddam Hussein. You see this thing? Hussein built a 40-foot statue of himself. And today, Donald Trump goes, ‘I wonder how much that cost?’” ― Jay Leno, April 9.
“President Bush spoke directly to the Iraqi people today, and he told them ― this is a quote ― ‘Your nation will soon be free.’ That’s nice. That’s what he said. That was an exact quote, yeah. Actually, the entire quote, ‘Your nation will be free, and our gas will soon be $1 a gallon.’” ― Conan O’Brien, April 11.
“Over the weekend, tens of thousands of Islamic militants marched in the streets of Baghdad chanting, ‘America is God’s enemy. Death to America.’ Nice to see things are back to normal over there.” ― Jay Leno, April 22.
George W. Bush stands in front of the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare the end of combat operations in Iraq.
George W. Bush Declares ‘Mission Accomplished’
“Tomorrow, President Bush is expected to announce that the war in Iraq is over. This is big. That’s right. As a result, Bush will be able to resume his war on the English language.” ― Conan O’Brien, May 1.
“Earlier tonight, Bush announced the war against Iraq has been won. It’s all over, it’s been won. I believe this would be Bush’s first uncontested victory.” ― David Letterman, May 2.
“President Bush became the first president to land on an aircraft carrier. I saw that on the news. He landed in a jet on the Abraham Lincoln. You know, last time a president landed on something that big, he got impeached, didn’t he, as I remember?” ― Jay Leno, May 2.
President Bush flew on a combat jet and landed on an aircraft carrier. Pretty neat, yeah. Yeah, he flew in. Got in, yeah. Yeah, not only that, next week, the president will go for a ride on a big red fire engine.” ― Conan O’Brien, May 2.
U.S. Forces Kill Saddam Hussein’s Sons In Mosul
“Folks, before we get started tonight, quick, quick question. Do you think Saddam Hussein’s walking around Baghdad right about now going, ‘I wonder why I haven’t heard from the kids?’” ― Jay Leno, July 24.
“To prove to the people of Iraq that they were dead, the U.S. decided to release photos of Uday and Qusay. Those photos were not pretty. They were gruesome. They were awful photos, but still not as bad as Nick Nolte’s mugshot.” ― David Letterman, July 28.
This December 15, 2003 combo photo shows the latest covers of Newsweek and Time magazines, both featuring former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein after U.S. forces captured him in Tikrit.
Saddam Hussein Is Captured
“Welcome to the ‘Tonight Show,’ everybody. And of course, happy Groundhog Day, everybody. America’s most wanted Groundhog, Saddam Hussein, captured in Iraq over the weekend.” ― Jay Leno, December 16.
“As you all know by now, Saddam was found cowering in this little hole in the ground, and supposedly, his goal ― his goal was to remain in hiding until all the shooting stopped, which, hey, worked for the French.” ― Jay Leno, December 18.
“You folks still excited about Saddam Hussein being captured? It’s not every day you get to pull a leader of a country out of a hole, you know.” ― David Letterman, December 18.
“When you think about it, it’s a strange world. One day you’re the leader of Iraq, the next day you’re being checked for fleas on Fox News.” ― David Letterman, December 16.
The Future Of Iraq
“And now the really difficult part: We have to rebuild Iraq into a strong, independent nation that will one day hate the U.S.” ― David Letterman, April 10.
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