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June 2, 2008

Is Late Night Political Comedy a Joke?


As 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.


Strange Bedfellows 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 politics itself.


If 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.


A 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 Strange Bedfellows.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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