What's so funny about nuclear holocaust?

Comedians Fran Peavey and Charlie Varon make it hilarious.

As Dusty Molloy, an inept pitcher for an Oakland A's farm club who works in the off-season for North Anna nuclear-power plant ("I divide my life into my baseball season and my nuclear atomic season"), Varon drawls on about the impossibility of perfection in either profession. After recalling how he forced a shutdown by jamming the reactor's controls with popcorn, he explains, "Nuclear atomic power is just like baseball. You've got a front office that promises the fans more than you can possibly deliver . . . You're out there in that control room and perfection is the last thing on your mind."

Blast power, fireballs, vaporization, meltdowns, mushroom clouds, fallout, the whole apocalyptic nightmare of our time is fodder for "nuclear comedians" Fran and Charlie. You might say plutonium is their fuel, but they rarely bomb.

Last weekend, at the Association for Humanist Psychology convention at American University, the team performed before an audience that included anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR).

Varon, as an unctuous TV host, interviewed Peavey in the role of an earnest real-estate developer, Hermione Pledge, president of Realtors for Social Responsibility (RSR):

"We at RSR are very concerned about the effect nuclear war would have on property values. You know, it's very difficult to sell a large hole . . . Property values go down as the mushroom cloud goes up! That's what a mushroom cloud is! It's real estate--pieces of real estate being sucked up and made radioactive and then coming down as fallout on other pieces of real estate. And not only that--but in a mushroom cloud, neighborhoods would mix!"

Caldicott, who would later give a speech on the fate of the earth that made Jonathan Schell's best-selling description of nuclear annihilation sound like a chapter out of Thomas More's "Utopia," appeared unamused. ("She was probably nervous about her speech," Varon allowed later.)

The rest of the crowd was in hysterics as Fran and Charlie kept up the pace.

This time with Peavey as the interviewer, Varon donned a Soviet military cap to play Curtis E. Catapult, a U.S. Army colonel who was "traded to the V.I. Lenin Airborne Division." Alluding to another chapter in nuclear-holocaust comedy history--Slim Pickens straddling a Russia-bound missile in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove"--the colonel described how he'd like to "retrofit" the Soviet Union's atomic missiles with handlebars and a motorcycle seat so that Soviet soldiers might fly over some tourist spots in the United States before annihilating them.

Peavey and Varon's fluid teamwork and satirical edge are reminiscent of Bob and Ray or Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks (in their less manic moments), but unlike most comic acts, they begin with a seemingly bleak topic: nuclear holocaust.

"People come convinced we can't possibly laugh about nuclear war," Varon said after Saturday morning's show.

"In order for this country to change on the nuclear issue, people have to share their fears and move out of the rigidity of their thinking, and laughing is one way," Peavey said. "For me, comedy is having the courage to look at what is real."

"So much of comedy depends on racism, sexism and class stereotypes for laughs, and while sometimes those jokes work to ease us of all that, it usually rigidifies them and I won't have that," Varon said. "It's a real gamble to go up on stage and be a human being as a comedian."

Three years ago, Peavey, 41, was working as a designer, teacher and political activist for the Glide Church in San Francisco. Varon, 23, had dropped out of Brown University and was in San Francisco working as an editor and writer. They met when they were both arrested at a anti-nuclear demonstration at the Diablo Canyon power plant in northern California.

What drew them together as a comedy team was more than a common viewpoint: They both had the experience of laughing in the face of their worries and dreams about disaster.

One night, Peavey and three friends found themselves laughing hysterically after having spent several tearful, harrowing hours discussing their fears about nuclear war. "All of a sudden, to relieve the tension, we started making ridiculous jokes, about how children might assemble a bomb of their very own from parts that would come in Cheerios boxes," Peavey said.

Varon had written a short story called "Proliferation," about a bank vice president who wins a nuclear bomb in a poker game. He names the bomb "Manuel" and learns to make love to it. "The Atlantic rejected it," Varon said. "They said my treatment of the subject was inappropriate."

Peavey and Varon are involved with Interhelp, a group that organizes workshops for people to discuss their feelings about the threat of nuclear destruction. The comedy act, according to Varon, is intended to work with the "necessary but terribly gloomy" empirical work of Caldicott, Schell and others--their comedy has serious intent.

"All of us feel helpless, we feel powerless. We psychically numb ourselves to the reality of the situation. Se we walk around thinking we're paranoid, that it 'must be me,' so we try to deny," Varon said. "Collectively, denial is suicidal."

Varon and Peavey write most of their own bits but sometimes they discover what they call "indigenous nuclear comedy material."

"We found a pamphlet for crisis relocation in Denver," Varon said. "It described how in case of nuclear war everybody would go out to the suburbs. Well, I was reading this thing to the audience and I came to the line, 'Traffic will probably be heavy,' and the place just exploded. I've never seen an audience go up that fast. We can write material that is good, but this stuff was free!"