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June 2, 2008
Is Late Night Political
Comedy a Joke?
the 2008 general election campaign gets underway, way too many Americans
once again will gain the bulk of their political news not from
newspapers, news anchors or even the Internet – but rather from
late-night comics. A new book analyzes this phenomenon and the nexus of
politics and television comedy in general, and raises some fascinating
questions about where one ends and the other begins.
was written by University of Iowa professor Russell L. Peterson.
Subtitled How Late Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into a Joke, it
was published earlier this spring by the Princeton University Press. In
it the author, a former political cartoonist, asks whether late-night
comics are overstepping their bounds in poking fun at politicians and
nothing else, Peterson’s book demonstrates just how awful and unfunny
the whole Leno/Letterman brand of “political humor” is. As Peterson
points out, these comics and their writing staffs find one aspect of a
politician’s character – George Bush Sr./wimp, Bill Clinton/horndog,
George W. Bush/idiot – and simply base simplistic “jokes” around that
persona every night for a decade or more. The object is never to take
any political stands, instead preferring to make fun of politics itself.
This comedy genre is awful for all sorts of reasons – it’s not funny,
it’s unfair to the public figures themselves and betrays an appalling
lack of creativity among supposedly brilliant writing staffs. Reading
awful joke after awful joke, as collected by Peterson, makes one wonder
just how these comics pull in the big bucks that they do. Leno, after
all, was telling Bill Clinton/womanizer jokes when he took over the
Tonight Show in 1992, and will likely still be telling them up until
the day he leaves in 2009.
Peterson, early on, wisely makes the distinction between genuine satire
(The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Doonesbury,
etc.) and “pseudo-satire” (Jay Leno, Andy Borowitz, JibJab.com and Rich
Little, among others.)
Perhaps the worst example of the latter is the abysmal 2006 comedy
Man of the Year, in which Robin Williams played a Stewart-like comic
who runs for president. That film failed largely because it contained
not an ounce of satirical bite, while Williams went the entire running
time without telling a single funny joke. Then there’s 2007’s
American Dreamz, a satire built entirely on the groundbreaking
notion of Bush-is-a-moron jokes.
further distinction should be made between Jon Stewart’s show and,
really, everything else. While Jay Leno is making the same old
dumb-Bush/horny-Clinton jokes, Stewart hosts what can only be called a
nightly masterpiece. Whether mocking the Bush Administration, various
cable news idiocy or other targets, he’s always hilarious, always sharp
and always bitingly, brilliantly satirical.
But I wouldn’t blame the comics themselves for “turning democracy into a
joke,” and this is the one place where Peterson especially overreaches.
I’d say the politicians themselves have done a good enough job of making
a mockery of American democracy on their own, especially in the last
decade or so.
The book also overreaches in the belief that comedy is the media’s
biggest problem when it comes to politics. Whether it’s the constant
focus on superficial non-stories like Barack Obama’s preacher and
Hillary Clinton’s hair; the hours of attention to Lindsay Lohan, Anna
Nicole Smith and the like; the political bias depending on the network;
or the emphasis on shouting above all else, I’d argue that cable news is
a much more corrosive influence on American democracy than all the
late-night comedy shows put together.
Additionally, oftentimes the book simply becomes a list of Peterson’s
observations and opinions about certain late-night personalities,
regardless of whether they fit the book’s thesis or not. He’s right on
with most of what he writes about the likes of Bill Maher, Dennis Miller
and Sarah Silverman, though, despite lacking an appreciation for
South Park’s long-running satirical brilliance. There are also more
than a few minor errors – the famous Al Gore “Macarena” joke was at the
1996 Democratic convention, not 1992. And he refers to Conan O’Brien as
“not ‘ethnic’ in any noticeable way.” Huh?
Despite these flaws, anyone with a simultaneous interest in politics,
comedy and their many intersections will likely find a lot to enjoy in
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