Roseanne Barr should do a fan a favor: stop pretending she doesn't know why people are so upset at her desecration of the National Anthem at the San Diego ball park last week. Let her admit that she screwed up, apologize to the American people and go back to being funny.

What she did the other night -- the vocal equivalent of flag burning -- wasn't funny, though it wasn't necessarily unforgiveable. There's hardly a classroom cut-up, political humorist or professional comic who hasn't, at one time or another, told a joke and instantly wished he hadn't. Virtually all of them will tell you that the easiest way to minimize the damage is with an immediate apology. What is unforgiveable is to pretend you were misunderstood, or taken out of context -- as though the fault is in the offended rather than in the offense.

I have a friend, a very funny fellow, who once regaled a drinking party with a series of paraplegic jokes (What do you call a paraplegic in the ocean? Bob. What do you call a paraplegic under a pile of leaves? Russell.) He discovered the next day that a member of his small audience had included the father of a paraplegic.

There was no good way out of his mess, and he knew it. But still my friend picked up the phone, owned up to his stupidity, apologized profusely -- and was forgiven. He understood the point I'm trying to make.

Earl Butz didn't, and his scatological assault on blacks quickly turned him into a former secretary of agriculture. Like Jesse Jackson with his "Hymietown" remark, Butz thought his words should have been overlooked because they were uttered in private. I acknowledge that a lot of us, men in particular, say things that may be relatively innocuous in private that become devastating in public. The point is, when they become public, quick, profuse and sincere apology is the only chance of setting things right.

It's worse, of course, when the offense is public from the beginning -- as with Jackie Mason's gaffe during the New York mayoral campaign.

The usually quick-witted and perceptive Mason took exactly the wrong tack by trying to blame the reaction to his words on those who did the reacting: blacks who were offended by his assault on David Dinkins and Jews who resented being told that their support of Dinkins (against the Mason-backed Republican, Rudolph Giuliani) was prompted by guilt.

Mason said his remarks, which he insisted were "taken out of context," were meant to be funny.

Roseanne Barr no doubt meant to be funny when she caterwauled her way through the National Anthem last week. But instead of owning up to a hideously inappropriate choice of comedic material, she persists in notion that her offense was in her marginal singing ability.

"I got out there and sang the first four notes," she said afterward, "then everybody started booing me and I went into a panic. For a minute I thought: 'I can get out of here, just quit.' But I didn't. I just did the best I could."

When President Bush described the performance as "disgraceful," she stuck to her misreading. "Well, I'm sorry I didn't sing so good. I'd like to hear him sing it."

The closest she came to an apology was to say she was "sorry about everyone being so upset."

Surely she knows that the reason people are upset has less to do with her singing voice (though why she would agree to make the attempt is beyond me) than with the fact that she was obviously trying to make a joke of the anthem. Her crude gestures after she finished (she grabbed her crotch and spit, in imitation of baseball players) left no doubt of her humorous intent.

But she still doesn't seem to understand that some subjects aren't fit for humor: ridicule of race, religion and the emblems of American democracy among them. Nor is she the only one who bears responsibility for the gaffe. Tom Arnold, her husband and manager, and Tom Werner, principal owner of the San Diego Padres and co-creator of Barr's hit TV show, "Roseanne," should never have invited and encouraged her to sing the anthem.

"I never was, never will be the kind of person people think a star is supposed to be when they get famous," she said. "I'm never going to lock myself behind steel doors and surround myself with a lot of PR guys. I'm never going to get a face lift and vote Republican."

Again she misses the point. A lot of people who like Roseanne raw nevertheless resented her attempt to turn the National Anthem into a joke.

Oh, well, there's still time to apologize, and so far as I know, no one has yet proposed a constitutional amendment against off-key screeching.