By Robert Birsel
BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - For 35 years Milood Amroni, Libya's top comedian, used humor as a weapon to poke fun, ever so carefully, at the government of Muammar Gaddafi.
But an uprising wrested Amroni's home, the eastern city of Benghazi, from Gaddafi's rule months ago. While the revolution means Amroni is finally able to joke openly without fear of disappearing into prison, he says he's had enough of political jokes and wants to move on.
"I felt I had to start again from the very beginning," Amroni told Reuters.
"I felt that if I make jokes about Gaddafi they wouldn't be good jokes because he's too weak now and it's not good to make jokes about a weak guy," said the tall, pencil-thin 50-year-old.
Rebel forces are in the final phase of the battle for Tripoli, having overrun Gaddafi's fortified compound and forced him into hiding.
Rebels also report fighting deep in the desert and a standoff around Gaddafi's home town. But in the Mediterranean city of Benghazi, Gaddafi's rule is largely a memory since his forces were driven out.
Newspapers as well as television and radio stations have flourished after 42 years of repressive Gaddafi rule. The flood of new ideas and open debate has suddenly meant audiences are much more sophisticated.
"We've never been in this sort of situation, to talk openly about politics, to make jokes about politicians," said Amroni, whose sharp face, framed by white hair and a grey beard, is quick to crack into a wicked grin.
"Before, we would just give hints about politics and the people would react and feel happy. Now they're more critical and it's very difficult to make them laugh about politics because they're joking themselves ... Now the people are making the jokes and we're laughing."
"THE GUY ON TOP IS UNDERGROUND"
Offending Gaddafi could have meant vanishing into detention with his family, Amroni said. Jokes could allude to the leader only obliquely, but his knowing audience would understand.
In one of Amroni's old skits, two men in military training were being tormented by an officer. One says to the other: "This is good practice for when we're bullied by the top commander." Libya's top military commander was Gaddafi.
In another skit, a man is standing on a table, looking for "the guy on top." His friend says, "No, the guy on top is underground." Many Libyans believed Gaddafi lived in a bunker.
"Because Gaddafi was involved in everything -- culture, politics, sport -- I had different things to joke about," Amroni said. "For 35 years I was using jokes to try to fight Gaddafi."
A fan of Charlie Chaplin and Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean, Amroni said he will still do comedy, just not political jokes. He would focus more on drama including tragedies on the stage and for television.
"I want people to see change. We change, the country has changed ... Everything has changed, even comedy," he said.
And he didn't rule out a return to political humor one day.
"Political jokes were a weapon to fight with and now we don't need it. But maybe later."
(Editing by Peter Graff and Sonya Hepinstall)