Gore and Bush each get lampooned
on late-night television, but the satire isn't impartial. And
with comics becoming as influential as news anchors, how a political
joke gets constructed actually matters.
Alexis Boehmler is a junior studying
English at Davidson College. At 20, she is bright and well versed,
with strong views on the abortion issue and other political matters.
Occasionally, friends tease her about her passion for literature;
she recalls with some embarrassment speaking in class once about
Don DeLillo's novel "White Noise" and being moved nearly to tears.
Her opinions do not betray a hint of apathy or intellectual lethargy,
and she has every intention of voting in November. And her primary
news source -- often, her only news source -- is "The Daily Show
With Jon Stewart," a parody.
"I've always gotten news through watching comedy
shows," Boehmler says. "The coverage on CNN is something I honestly
Twelve days ago, when controversy arose over
an ad for Gov. George W. Bush that allegedly contained subliminal
messages (notably, the word RATS flashing over a critique of Al
Gore's health care agenda), Boehmler was first exposed to the
story through "Daily Show" jokes. Keying in on the blunder, Jon
Stewart opened the show with the headline "G.O.P. accused of subliminal
advertising: George W. Bush says, 'Why would we advertise underwater?"'
The payoff of the segment, of course, was the video of Bush's
many repetitions of the word he pronounced as "subliminable."
"Yes, he said 'subliminable,"' Stewart explained
after one clip, "but he was probably distracted thinking about
executing some criminables."
"That is so funny!" Boehmler says. "Criminables!
I like that they didn't just say Bush was a moron, but put it
in context of his other policies."
This latest cascade of gaffes -- presented on
a comedy program -- powerfully reinforced Boehmler's impression
of the Republican nominee. "He's an ignorant mouthpiece," she
says. "You're always waiting for him to slip up. Dan Quayle often
had a little-boy look on his face, but Bush looks lost and confused,
like he's not quite there."
Boehmler is also an avid admirer of "The Tonight
Show with Jay Leno." At the beginning of this summer, she made
it a point never to miss a broadcast. "Leno is clearly well informed
on history," she says, "which I certainly am not. With Leno and
Stewart, I can get the news in an interesting format, and if there's
anything I don't understand, I go look it up in the library."
This is hardly a unique phenomenon. The CNN
anchor Wolf Blitzer, for example, has direct experience with the
power of the late-nights. His own college-age daughter is under
their sway. "I asked her who she was voting for," Blitzer says,
"and she immediately said, 'I'm gonna vote for Gore.' I asked
why. 'Because he was cool on "The Tonight Show."' I asked, 'How
do your friends feel?' She said, 'The same way."'
"There's no doubt that all this comedy has an
impact," Blitzer adds. "Elections are won and lost on public perceptions
in that kind of popular culture."
The moments that alter political fate often
lack substance. Elections play themselves out in vivid, catchy
metaphors: Dukakis and a tank, Quayle and a potatoe. Part of what
turns random episodes like the RATS controversy into icons, what
inflates them into pivotal campaign events, is late-night comedy.
Boehmler believes straight news is so hobbled
in its efforts to conceal bias that accuracy is lost. For her,
a parody like "The Daily Show" is a more reliable political guide.
"It's just comedy," she says. "So it can be more honest."
Late-night comedy has never been so subtly powerful.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and
the Press showed that a full 47 percent of Americans between the
ages of 18 and 29 often gleaned information about the presidential
campaign from late-night comedy shows, like those of Jay Leno
and David Letterman. And the late-nights' appeal is not limited
to younglings; more than a quarter of all adults get campaign
news from those programs.
The link between politics and comedy is now
fully institutionalized. News outlets now present comedians not
as escapists from hard news but as legitimate commentators upon
it. Late-night hosts like Jon Stewart, Dennis Miller and Bill
Maher are in constant rotation, not only on the fluffy "Larry
King Live" but also on CNN's staple, "Late Edition." It's logical.
A comic's take on politics is nimble, bite-size and utterly clear.
And Americans prefer to take their news sweet.
The Bush and Gore campaigns monitor the late-nights
for something they don't get from pundits: vibe. "We read the
transcripts of those shows and watch them," says Chris Lehane,
the Gore campaign's press secretary. "The monologues are evidence
of when a certain story really breaks through. If it makes it
onto Leno or Letterman, it means something."
Late-night comedians balance their art upon
a deep and abiding fantasy: that they are apolitical, that they
have no impact whatever on the daylight-hour workings of the electoral
process. Mainstream comedy -- especially the sly, rounded-scissor-blade
gibes of Letterman and Leno -- is presented as a last bastion
of impartiality. Yet it is a form of propaganda. From the ideology
of those who write the shows, straight down to the arcane structure
of TV humor itself, political bias is comedy's secret sharer.
It isn't the American public that relies on this illusion: it's
the late-night community itself.
Talk to the staffs at any of the late-nights
-- the guys at Letterman, Leno, Conan, "The Daily Show," "Politically
Incorrect" and "Dennis Miller Live." Eventually you'll hear the
same phrase I heard at every show, said with pride but no humor:
We're equal-opportunity offenders! In the same breath, writers
will tell you they're not advocates in any way, but that it's
nice to put "the truth" out there, to give a shout when the emperor
isn't wearing clothes.
"All you really do with comedy," Jay Leno says,
"is clarify the news a little. Your role is to take the spin out
of the story and get to the joke about the heart of the story.
That's what it is."
"Johnny Carson is the model for all talk-show
hosts," says Conan O'Brien. "You never knew his politics. He's
a very intelligent man, but you just didn't know. And I think
that's the job."
Such claims to comedic neutrality are willfully
naive. Interpreting the news, whether you're poised behind a desk
or standing on your mark, can't be performed without some degree
of distortion. Not that the distortions don't make for great jokes.
This season's comedy yield has been prodigious. Consider Jon Stewart's
remark that "Republicans are trying to bring more minorities into
the tent -- not the house, of course, just the tent." Or Jay Leno's
line that Bush "has fried so many convicts they shouldn't call
him governor, they should call him the Colonel." Or even the dusty
old jape of Letterman's, about how "Joe Lieberman would be the
first Jewish person to serve directly under a president since
-- well, since Monica," and further, that the recent polls have
made Al Gore so confident that "he has actually started raising
"The bottom line of a joke, really, is its premise,"
says Chris Matthews, host of "Hardball" on MSNBC. That is, jokes
start with their point: the ostensibly agreed-on idea that, say,
Gore is a robot or Bush is an idiot. Once the setup is delivered,
says Matthews, regardless of the punchline, the joke's damage
is done. Suddenly an audience "knows" Gore is a liar. That has
a lot of artillery.
Thanks in part to that hidden power, comedy
has become a mirror image of politics. Politicians work their
whole lives to demonstrate conviction, while mainstream comics
work to prove their lack of it. The curious result is that we
trust most those comedians who admit the least. Yet, despite the
comics' pretense of impartiality, it's still relevant to ask what
their jokes imply -- what the jokes really want.
Politics in America is a lot like auto racing,"
says Jay Leno. "Americans don't really like racing the way Europeans
do -- they just like car crashes. So when you get a thoughtful,
intelligent candidate like Bill Bradley, oh, my God! It's impossible.
I'm not endorsing Bill Bradley. But here's a man who's a genuine
thinker and to me, alas, came to politics almost as a philosopher
Leno is splayed on a couch near his sound stage
in Burbank's vast NBC studios. Having just wound up a show, he
is dressed entirely in working-guy denim, which is brand new,
from the looks of it. As he speaks, his head gradually tilts back,
as though his brain needs a rest. Just the brain, though: all
the while, one of his feet twitches nervously of its own accord.
Leno has no party affiliation. Well, at first
he denies having one; when pressed, he says he doesn't advertise
it. "My wife is a Democrat, you know, a flag-waving Democrat,"
he says. "Her family were rabble rousers and union organizers
and all that kind of thing. But I don't give away my position,
because it taints the issue. It's like you go to a party and girls
say about you, 'That guy's gay.' Well, you've lost half the crowd
But Leno's claim to political self-abnegation
is shaky. True, very little can be read into his fawning performance
at this year's White House Correspondents' Dinner -- after all,
fawning is the gig -- though he's still wiggling with admiration
for Clinton's comic skills. "Oh, he was great," Leno says. "He
was great. I thought he was excellent. I thought he was great."
His attendance at a Democratic National Committee gala in April,
however, politically juxtaposed him for the first time with such
Hollywood reliables as Steven Spielberg, Kevin Spacey and Whoopi
Goldberg. The fund-raiser brought in $2.8 million.
In conversation, Leno often seems to tip his
hand. "Viewers know what spin doctors are, and they understand,"
he says. "But you have someone come out and tell the truth, and
it's really hard to do a joke about that guy, you know? How many
Ralph Nader jokes do you hear? You don't. Here's a guy, he comes
out and tells it like it is. My job's over!"
Granted, about 3 percent of the electorate would
also tag Nader as one who "tells it like it is," but such remarks
are peculiar coming from a man who relies on political secrecy.
And at the opposite edge of third-party campaigning, Leno isn't
quite so awestruck: "I have no desire to book people who are scary
like Pat Buchanan or those kind of guys."
David Letterman is more difficult to nail down.
Jokingly accused of being a Democrat by Paul Shaffer on the Sept.
6 "Late Show," Letterman took the stock comedy position: "No,
no -- we're right down the middle, my friend. Either side, we
just don't care."
Chris Kelly, a former "Late Show" staff writer
(and subsequently the head writer of "Politically Incorrect"),
believes Letterman to be "a nonvoting Republican." Gerard Mulligan,
a writer who's about to mark his sixth presidential election working
on Letterman monologues, insists he has "utterly no clue of how
David votes. David recuses himself."
Still, there are always slips of the tongue.
During a 1995 chat with Senator Bob Dole, Letterman blurted out
that the Contract With America sounded to him like a pretty good
idea. There was no punch line. Letterman has also been known to
ramble on about, of all things, his fondness for Rush Limbaugh's
radio work -- though not explicitly Limbaugh's views. In a 1995
interview with Tom Snyder, Letterman marveled more than once at
how Limbaugh was "endlessly entertaining" (in fairness, however,
he used the same phrase about Radio Havana). He then added, "I
don't know enough about politics to say whether, yes, he's right,
yes, he's wrong -- I just don't know -- but I found him as a communicator
very effective." It was hardly a declaration, but even flirting
with the idea of Limbaugh being on the mark (this, at a time when
Limbaugh and the political left savaged each other on a daily
basis) seems to sweep Letterman off any list of confirmed Dems.
"One thing that struck me about Dave," recalls
Kelly, "was when George Pataki, a Republican, was elected governor
of New York. Knowing the material wouldn't be used, I started
writing lines like: 'What Pataki really likes to do is kill. Mostly
he's interested in killing people.' Dave didn't do those. He did
Pataki-is-a-funny-name jokes. Later, though, he was doing all
these Hillary-carpetbagger jokes. I found that a little strange."
Despite their parallel roles, the kings of late
night are a study in political contrast. The one quality Leno
searches for in a politician is sincerity. "I like both sides
of the aisle if people honestly believe in what they're saying,"
he says. "If you took John McCain's beliefs and wrote them on
a paper, I don't think I'd necessarily agree with it. But just
the fact that you can find anybody in Washington who believes
-- all I ask is that they believe something."
Leno's remarks, and his jokes, often have a
whiff of the civics class about them. He is not averse to scolding,
especially about public ignorance. That's the implicit point of
his "Jay-walks" -- the segments in which he quizzes ordinary people
in the street, and 6 out of 10 of them can't identify Al Gore.
"Jay-walks" are Leno's gentle reprimand to a
big, dumb, lazy democracy. In one particular bit -- his favorite
ever -- he met a lady who thought that Mount Rushmore had been
formed by erosion. "Well," he asked her, "how do you think the
rain knew to not only pick four presidents -- but four of our
greatest presidents? How did the rain know to put the beard on
Lincoln and not on Jefferson?" She said, "Oh, just luck, I guess!"
Political illiteracy stings him. He repeats
the kicker, amused but vaguely piqued: Just luck, I guess!
While Leno poses as a seeker, yearning for pols
who "believe" and an informed citizenry, Letterman's comedy begins
where advocacy leaves off. His Campaign 2000 segments routinely
veer off into bizarre and amusing anecdotes about, say, how he
cut his finger over the weekend. It's what he does best, and also
why, after decades in late night, it is his cadence, not Leno's,
that rings in young comics' ears. Yet with Letterman, American
political ignorance is presumed, even celebrated, with the host
acting as the most misguided man in the room. In his "nickel squirrel
show," weighty political matters tend to be undercut. It is status-quo
The industries of comedy and politics have co-opted
each other, and no one seems to feel compromised. The symbiosis
offers great ratings for both camps. Comics can thrash candidates
for months on end but, as day must follow night, the politician
gets a shot at payback. Jay Leno says he makes a point of offering
regular targets "a chance to come on the air and kick me around
When candidates do make their TV rounds, the
shows' writing staffs enthusiastically lend a hand. "Plenty of
times when politicians are here, we write jokes for them," says
Leno. "We try to make it comfortable. I'll say, 'Hey, call me
this name.' And it gets a big laugh. We've done that a lot."
The Late-Night Candidate Visit has never been
more crucial to politics. A shot on Leno or Letterman is a unique
chance for the country to feel closer to the candidate's "genuine"
persona. There is no more efficient way to convey a potential
leader's humor and modesty; it's a terrific way to humanize the
Product. Even potential campaign liabilities can be discussed
in jovial tones. When the vice president did "The Late Show" on
Sept. 14, Letterman opened the proceedings by announcing it was
"a special Al Gore fund-raiser," adding that Gore would "be out
a little later to get your thousand dollars." Relaxed and apparently
having fun, Gore then read the Top 10 list, which contained one
item that went: "Remember, America -- I gave you the Internet,
and I can take it away. Think about it."
A late-night appearance also shapes the candidate's
future image on that program. The target tames the host. "Letterman
and Leno talk a big game," says Wolf Blitzer, "but when the candidate
actually makes an appearance, it's a big wet kiss. After all the
grief they give for months on end, the hosts become puppy dogs."
Consider Hillary Clinton's Jan. 12 appearance
on "The Late Show." Letterman behaved like a star-struck teenager.
The old corruption jokes, the carpetbagger jokes: those were hazy
memories. Didn't Letterman himself live outside New York? 'Course
he did. "New Yorkers are people who have come from other places,"
Letterman told Clinton, seeing the matter clearly for the very
first time. "That makes the whole thing look reasonable!"
With 11.2 million viewers, the show's audience
that night was three times the season average. In the wake of
the show, Letterman adopted an air of deference toward Hillary
Clinton. He laid off.
Some guest shots yield bitter fruit. Take the
March "Late Show" interview with Bush. (The Bush campaign, it
should be noted, declined several requests to be interviewed for
this article.) Bracing up for Super Tuesday, Bush insisted on
appearing via satellite, which added a split-second delay to the
flow of conversation. The unfortunate effect was that Bush seemed
to need extra time to comprehend questions and form answers.
The flash point of the interview came with the
easiest question. "You often say, 'I'm a uniter, not a divider,"'
Letterman said. "What does that mean?" Bush smiled fatuously through
a few painful moments of satellite drift. Then, skating to the
edge of coherence, he replied: "It means when it comes time to
sew up your chest cavity, we use stitches as opposed to opening
As a tasteless and contorted reference to the
host's recent heart surgery, this comment was baffling on many
levels. Letterman traded shrugs with one of his producers, Rob
Burnett. The audience actually booed. In three minutes, Bush had
confirmed his late-night (modern translation: "popular") image
as a flyweight who gibbers when he is off script. A few days later,
an editorial in The Washington Post framed the appearance as evidence
of a real dynamic in the presidential race, borrowing a word from
Letterman's own lexicon: the Pinhead Factor.
In the months since, Letterman has hardly faded
from the campaign. He has kept a hand in by pressing for a debate
between Gore and Bush on his program. The "Late Show" invitation,
issued in July, was at first regarded by news outlets as a prank.
But the Gore campaign, which prides itself on its attention to
pop culture, leapt at the chance. Gore's handlers saw this as
a win-win opportunity to make Bush look nervous or, alternately,
to make him look very nervous. Within hours, Gore's approval was
finalized. "He didn't even blink," recalls Chris Lehane. "He just
said, 'When do we go?"'
The Bush campaign's response has been quite
the opposite: to stonewall. A few of the ground rules seem to
give them pause -- notably, Letterman's insistence on judging
the event with the "Spectacular Seven" jai alai scoring system,
which has played a relatively small role in American presidential
politics to date. Night after night, Letterman hammers on Bush
for dithering. "If you turn it down, see, it makes you look like
you're scared," he has said, "like you're a little girl. Nobody
wants a little girl in the White House."
Within the intricate calculus of bias in comedy,
"The Daily Show" is the smartest television show in the country
today. Fully embracing the staleness of politics and the media
that cover politics, it satirizes the whole game. In a 30-minute
format, the show consistently offers the sort of nuanced and complicated
comedy that would meet with a grisly fate on the other late-nights.
The past summer has been filled with great writing: Lewis Black,
a self-avowed Socialist, reported that the G.O.P. convention "was
the first time Republicans heard Jon Secada's music when it wasn't
blaring from their gardeners' trucks." Jon Stewart, on the same
subject, referred to the minority speakers appearing at that convention
as "possibly the most offensive Benetton ad ever." Without fear
of puzzling his audience, he refers to Joe Lieberman as a man
"ready to build that bridge to the 59th century."
One hazy August morning, in its office complex
on West 54th Street, the staff members gather for a rundown of
the morning papers. Ten white males in their 20's and early 30's,
many wearing vintage-store shirts, are arrayed casually around
the room. Ben Karlin, who spent three years as editor of a popular
news parody called The Onion, presides, wearing slashed jeans.
His sandaled feet are kicked up on his desk like a latter-day
This is a well-oiled machine. Each writer has
skimmed one of the morning staples: The Times, The Daily News,
USA Today and The New York Post, which one guy mutters is "our
paper of record." The day's joke-friendly items are called out
between bites of bagel and melon. For a good half-hour nothing
is catching fire, not even the stunning announcement that Fabio,
the musclebound patron saint of non-butter-disbelievers, has endorsed
Al Gore. "The wait is over," one writer rasps. Another tries out
some equally perfunctory structure: "As Fabio goes, so goes the
"Gore now leads in the polls," offers one of
the younger staff members.
"Notably polls of his own family," says Paul
Michael Mercurio, a former Wall Street lawyer who gave it all
up for comedy four years ago.
All eyes turn to this morning's Associated Press
video feeds. The Texas governor, looking extra surreal on the
Bush 2000 plane, is flanked by his burly director of communications,
Karen Hughes. "Of course we're gonna debate," Bush is saying,
testily. "I look forward to 'em!"
The room loves it. Consistently funny, says
the room, unfondly. That man is funny down to his socks.
In a subsequent shot, Bush steps off the plane
with a silly little half-wave. Karlin, whose admiration of the
governor seems less than total, says, "Real presidential," then
gets back to business.
"Here's the plan," he grunts, staring at his
fruit basket. "Our headline is Gore's bump in the polls, with
cover on the debate negotiations. Gore's people are accepting
40-plus invites to debate, while Bush is negotiating for the bare
minimum." Without segue, the room turns to the bleary task of
searching for a headline slug. Each writer stares either directly
up or directly down, languidly calling out his best attempt to
capture this story in short, pun form: "Bumpin' Up. . . . Rise
and Shine. . . . Poll Position. . . . "
Mercurio, flat on his back on a sofa, calls
out a headline without sounding bored -- which is the room's equivalent
of a boast. "Poll Vaulter," he says with a thud of finality.
"Poll Vault," Karlin corrects. "Not bad."
Running down the show's outline with the supervising
producer, Kahane Corn, Karlin mentions that a recent flurry of
Bush gaffes might make a fine highlight for the end of the show.
Corn agrees that this sequence would be funny, and moreover, "important
just to air," seemingly as a public service. She has views.
A brief back-and-forth ensues about Bush's flaws.
"It's staggering that the American people could be so duped by
this man," he says, his face actually reddening. "It's hard to
be funny about it because it's pretty tragic."
Corn shakes her head and reminds us of the importance
of the presidency by pushing a make-believe nuclear button.
"And these gaffes!" Karlin continues. "That's
textbook. One second off script and he panics -- he reverts to
his real self. You listen to McCain and Dole, the only two in
that party with any individuality, and they hate him. It's not
even a partisan issue!"
With an air of utter rationality, Karlin then
claims that "The Daily Show" is geared for comedy, not partisanship.
"We always cut to the funny," he says. "But this is just a clear
case of one candidate being inferior to the other. Not that Gore
is some dream candidate, but Bush -- he's an ideal puppet, as
though there's a hidden ghost-machine running this thing. It's
so obvious he's wrong for the job in every way."
By early afternoon, the "Daily Show" staff is
in Karlin's office for the Joke Select. Though taping is only
a few hours away -- and much of the video is still AWOL -- there's
no anxiety. Jon Stewart is alternating between bites of pizza
and dragging off one of the Merit Ultra Lights he's never without.
The room replays the video of Bush on the plane.
"Look at that defensive posture," Karlin marvels. "He is, like,
All five writers start doing plane-related riffs,
with Stewart tossing out muffled jokes through the pizza: "The
captain told the passengers that if they looked to the left, they
could see the abyss of Bush's fear."
A staff member named Adam enters the room with
news that the recent Bush-gaffe video has not yet been found --
not at CNBC nor even CNN. Stewart asks how long it'll take to
get it. Adam replies, "Three hours."
"You know what?" Stewart pleasantly replies.
"Forget the gaffes for today. He'll make more."
Minutes later, while the room is engrossed in
Harry Potter jokes, Stewart is still fixated on Bush and the plane:
"Since he looks so terrified, how about, 'Bush's panic, you know,
caused the oxygen masks to drop'?"
"He was then removed from his exit row," Karlin
says, rolling with it, "since he couldn't fulfill the. . . . "
Stewart caps, with a joke that should please
the room on every level: "Because he was deemed unfit to serve!"
Karlin pauses, then shakes his head. "Nah, that's
exit-row-regulation stuff," he says. "Too inside."
A rhubarb-murmur fills the office, in which
people discuss the logic of that: Yeah, too inside for those who've
never flown before! But Karlin's instinct -- his experience that
comedy is either clear or it is nothing -- wins the day. Pace,
not ideology, is ultimately the comedian's meat and drink.
Comedy overrides politics, or near enough. On
the show itself, the entire attack on Bush's debate strategy appears
only in the form of a throwaway: that back on the plane, the "dreaded
topic" of debates had been broached. A simpler joke, based on
the Bush Dunce model, is used. Stewart would introduce the shot
of Bush -- in which we hear the governor committing himself to
three debates and Cheney to two -- then say that Bush concluded,
"That's a total of eight debates."
Somehow, "The Daily Show," a speeding bus without
a single conservative on board, manages to avoid the air of partisanship
it deserves. By flailing wildly, it hits everybody. "What we go
after are not actual policies but the facade behind them," Jon
Stewart says. "We work in the area between the makeup they're
wearing and the real face. And in that space, you can pretty much
hammer away at anybody."
It's hard to resist the logic of a man who,
in the space of 20 seconds, will define himself as a Norman Thomas
Socialist, then as a Whig, before rejecting the two-party system
altogether. "Party affiliation," Stewart says, "has no more substance
than when you were in school and they said, 'O.K., you're on the
red team, you're on the blue team and whoever wins gets pie."'
Old-school purists complain that, apart from
the long comedic arcs of "The Daily Show," the joke technology
applied by the late-nights is pedestrian stuff. You already know
the codes. For Gore, read Stiff. Bush, once Fratboy, then Cokehead,
is now Fool. Somewhere, on the sleepy outskirts of comedy, Buchanan
and Alan Keyes are huddled together beneath an umbrella called
After nine years, the Gore-as-Stiff archetype
still flourishes. On one of his HBO shows in July, Dennis Miller
showed an A.P. wire photo of Gore high-fiving a boy as Miller
read the vice president's ostensible words: "Hey there, young
fella, make contact with my hand above shoulder level with appropriate
force to make a short slapping sound."
The addiction to archetypes, of course, is stronger
as you move up the comedy hierarchy. Leno and Letterman depend
on instant accessibility -- and nuance can be so muddying. Gerard
Mulligan likes to say the code goes back to Aristophanes, the
pure interplay of streamlined comic attributes. The Phlegmatic
Man, the Choleric Man, the Melancholic. "Most comedy is based
on reducing somebody to one or two basic characteristics and ignoring
the rest," Mulligan says, reclining as he watches Letterman on
a muted, closed-circuit TV in his office. "We're not trying to
"It's been fascinating to watch the character
of Bush develop," says Chris Harris, another "Late Show" writer.
"Eventually he started making all these gaffes -- and we realized,
he's a dumb guy. There's no better cliche than the Dumb Guy. We
can plug that into any formula."
Just as with Dan Quayle, the Dunce label has
proven durable. After George W. Bush used an epithet beginning
with "A" to describe a New York Times reporter a few weeks ago,
Jay Leno told me he regretted cutting the previous night's joke
about how, in politics, the A-word used to mean adultery. "That
Bush comment is worth a week of jokes, easy!" he said. "At least
it was a two-syllable word. For Bush, that's a step up."
Comedy archetypes don't select themselves, of
course. Those choices are judgment calls -- the result of a given
staff's political disposition.
Where hosts covet their political secret identities,
writers are less cagey. To put it mildly, they are not traditionally
right-wingers. Jerry Nachman, an executive producer of "Politically
Incorrect," likes to describe them as "highly paid Marxists."
"You almost have to be left-of-center to be
a comedy writer," Ben Karlin says. "I've never met anybody who
wasn't. I mean, go back to the jester. Obviously, in this society,
the conservative political mind-set is king."
"Writers do skew to the left," says Eddie Feldmann,
head writer for "Dennis Miller Live." "That connects to the thrill
of being on a show like Dennis's, where one of the fun things
is to even the score a little -- to take something from the powerful
and give to someone who doesn't have the power."
Late-nighters deploy what they regard as an
airtight defense against allegations of bias: if an audience doesn't
agree with the premise, it wouldn't laugh. Assume, for example,
that you reversed the current buzz codes. Tag Gore "dumb" and
Bush "stiff." The audience won't respond. With this built-in safety
net -- so the argument goes -- these jokes must surely be a reflection
of public sentiment.
Mulligan, a man steeped in politics and history,
plays down comedy's impact with an uncharacteristically blocky
argument. "I don't think most comics were avid Reagan and Bush
supporters," he says flatly. "We certainly didn't have much influence
there. They were there for 12 years, you know?"
But there are degrees of influence that fall
short of total. Even a slight nudge of the electorate can have
an effect. Consider the 1976 election, in which Jimmy Carter defeated
the Ford-Dole ticket by less than 2 percentage points. "Only 11,000
votes would have saved us: 3,000 in Hawaii and 8,000 in Ohio,"
Bob Dole says now. "That's one good joke right there."
The significance of the '76 race is that, for
the first time in memory, even serious analyses were compelled
to factor in the effects of entertainment. The wild success of
Chevy Chase's parodies of Ford as a stumbler (this, despite Ford's
athleticism) cemented an image of the president as a dolt. "It
had an effect," Dole says. "Along with the people in Nixon masks
showing up at rallies with Pardon Me signs, it probably was enough
to make a difference."
Ford himself does not dispute the role of comedy
in the loss. "It was the heyday of ridicule," he says equably,
"and Chevy Chase exploited it. There's really nothing you can
do in that situation. You can't stand up and say, 'I was the best
athlete' and all that stuff. It only accentuates what the comedians
There are a few no-go terrains of late-night.
Jay Leno compares his limits with those of the Mafia: "You don't
go after the children; you don't go after the families. I don't
think I've ever mentioned Chelsea's name." Letterman, on the other
hand, recently noted that Chelsea is dating a White House intern,
concluding that "she's all Clinton."
Death remains the ultimate forbidden zone. Not
surprisingly, according to Mulligan, Letterman has never ventured
within a mile of a Kennedy-assassination reference. To the end
of his tenure, Johnny Carson maintained that Americans were still
repelled by Lincoln assassination jokes.
When Bill Clinton approved the execution of
a mentally incompetent Arkansas killer in 1992, no comedian would
have touched the story with a barge pole. Unfortunately for George
W. Bush, state-sanctioned death is suddenly irresistible: top-notch
In late July, Letterman casually mentioned that
Bush and Cheney were getting along so well that their weekend
plans were "to pick up some six-packs and watch an execution."
A few weeks later, Jay Leno touched an even more sensitive nerve,
a twofer: "They executed a guy with an I.Q. of 63. Can you believe
it? Bush turning his back on one of his own!"
These jokes astonish anyone who has been in
the business for more than a few years. At one time, for Jay Leno
-- the "safe" comic -- to compare a presidential candidate to
a mentally retarded murderer would have gotten him a network suspension
or worse. But ever the didact, Leno says his criterion for such
judgments rests on a kind of "moral law." He explains: "Speeding
is a man-made law. Driving 65, 75. Man-made. But there are moral
laws we can all agree on. Killing somebody. When innocent people
go to the electric chair."
"As for executions," he says quietly, "what's
Texas up to -- 150? I feel like updating the old joke and saying
Bush should get rid of the electric chair and install electric
bleachers. I mean, it's like throwing dice in Vegas. 'Are you
sure this one's guilty?"'
Letterman's jokes lack Leno's sense of burden.
They're by comparison rather merry: how Bush "is not lazy" as
his critics suggest, because he executed two prisoners today.
How, in the wake of Gore's perceived gains from the notorious
kiss with Tipper, "to kind of even things out, George Bush and
his wife were seen making out at an execution." The emphasis is
always pitched away from the execution itself.
A recent "Late Show" segment called Campaign
Souvenirs featured a toy electric chair (incredibly, with an orange-clad
male doll strapped in) that lighted up to read vote bush. But
the real punch line -- the big laugh, prepped for and received
-- was a jump cut to a stagehand named Tom, whose job it was to
actually run the switch for the toy.
Distinct from Leno's approach, Letterman's jokes
don't seem to conceal any special concern for the moral weight
of executions. By ramping up their hyperbole, Letterman seems
to defang the whole issue. Not that Bush isn't called to the carpet
with each of these jokes. He just isn't called to answer. Then
again, the Dunce label, alive and well each night for Letterman's
61 minutes, is enough to keep Bush from getting comfortable.
The current campaign's stereotypes are now fixed.
Until this summer, Al Gore's robotic bearing was treated as an
almost Platonic essence. An episode of "The Simpsons" a few years
back (relevant because every comedy writer in the nation can quote
chapter and verse from that series) included a "talking Al Gore
doll." One pull of a string and Gore flatly intoned, "You . .
. are hearing . . . my voice."
The most subtle -- that is, most exquisitely
biased -- caricatures have actually emerged on a show no one rates
as political: "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." Its finest satires
consist of cartoon faces of political figures with an actor's
mouth superimposed live on-screen. In the house jargon, such a
skit is called a Clutch Cargo, after the 1950's cartoon that used
the same device. As these characters behave more and more erratically
in conversation, O'Brien expresses outrage on behalf of the public.
That's the routine.
In the latest crop of Clutch Cargos, Gore and
Bush (both given voice by the veteran writer Robert Smigel) have
achieved a fullness unparalleled anywhere else in late-night comedy.
Not long ago, Bush had been seen as a coke fiend, at one point
snorting Senator John McCain's entire head. "The drug thing wore
thin," says the head writer, Jonathan Groff, who at 38 is a kind
of Stanley Kubrick among comedy figures. "But then we started
working in some of Bush's arrogance and lack of intellectual firepower."
A recent Clutch, for instance, showed Bush complaining
that he had been asked to "name all 50 continents -- not so easy!"
As he then fumbled into Middle East issues, he expressed his conviction
that "the Arabs get Arabia, so the Jews should get Jewsalem."
"You mean Jerusalem," replied O'Brien, ever
the perfect straight man.
The bit ended with Bush's endorsement of his
running mate: "I was always around when Dick Cheney and my dad
worked together. I'd hear 'em working in the front room when I'd
stumble in all high."
Despite O'Brien's sworn preference for cartoons
over ideology, the skit was typically rich. In the space of a
few lines, it nailed not only Bush's putative lack of smarts,
but his WASP-ish exclusivity (with a hint of prejudice), his inexperience
and reliance on old-guard pols -- all topped off with a kicky
drug reference for the lowbrows.
Al Gore, once depicted as a face with a staticky
modem noise issuing from its mouth, has now transformed into a
man who is not so much stiff as creepy. (Not "arrogant," though:
that's a word Groff, whose wife worked in the Clinton administration,
reserves for Bush.) At one rehearsal I watched last month, Smigel
had all but perfected his parody of Gore's voice, with its occasional
sibilance and faint echo of a schoolmaster's modulations.
With Smigel perched offstage, holding his face
motionless so his lips would stay within the Gore-head graphic,
O'Brien did the read-through from his desk, strumming an acoustic
guitar when there was nothing else to do. Groff (then in his final
weeks on staff) lazed on the guest couch, making subtle alterations
to the script. The concept for the sketch was that Gore was revving
up for his convention speech in Los Angeles.
"Eleven months ago," the Clutch Gore intoned,
"I turned my struggling campaign around by talking louder and
louder and acting weirder and weirder. Tomorrow night is an opportunity
to be louder and stiffer and weirder than ever. Conan, I aim to
be truuuly diss-turbing!" The fake Gore then lauded Clinton as
"most fan-horrible-tastic truly wonder-bad-legacy goodful!" which
was as close as any comic got to capturing the dicey acrobatics
of Gore's position at the time. When "Gore" then tried to sell
the notion that Joe Lieberman brought excitement to the campaign
under the bizarre theory that "Jewish people are festive," Conan
objected that "Gore" was stretching. "That is so funny, it makes
me laugh spontaneously!" Clutch Gore slowly replied, trying his
best to emit human laughter. "Ha, hah, ha."
There the evolution has stopped -- industry-wide.
The masks are indelible now, and it has come down to the Dunce
versus the Robot. Nothing that happens in the coming debates will
alter these portrayals. Any news will be fitted into currently
existing comedy molds. Popular opinion (and comic genius on a
deadline) are slow-turning ships.
Ultimately, it's not the politics of the people
writing the jokes that matters. Some caricatures are just more
damaging than others. Being called Dumb is more devastating than
being called Stiff -- that's comedy math, pure and simple. The
elemental dynamics of humor have made late-night jokes more punishing
on Governor Bush. And that helps Al Gore.
True, George W. Bush can protest the labels
that hang around his neck all he likes, but he can never overcome
them. What mainstream comedy will never admit to is the sheer
inequity of the attributes assigned to the two candidates. Because
the natural analog of stupidity is not stiffness.
Late-night comedy's rap on Al Gore might be
summed up this way: he is more in his element with policy than
with ceremony. He's a nerdy technocrat without flash. In the main,
he's accused of being untelegenic, of lacking the charisma of
Bill Clinton. He is "accused" of being smart.
On the structural level (leaving aside the question
of Bush's intelligence), a charge of stupidity strikes far deeper.
Foolishness is an irreducible attribute and judges the man's political
worth unambiguously. There is no way to interpret it charitably.
Stiffness, on the other hand, is an accident
of outward behavior. It may be a metaphor for discomfort before
a crowd -- or it may be the mark of someone who is extremely calculating.
Al Gore has hardly been a stranger to such accusations: that he
is a gifted panderer and adapts his behavior with amoral dexterity
to any situation in which he finds himself. His previous convention
speeches (if you believe his critics) clearly demonstrate his
willingness to trot out personal calamity to further political
goals. Never mind the campaign-finance thicket. Gore's critics
insist that, in 1996, Gore exploited the lung-cancer death of
his own sister even though he had a long history of accepting
contributions from Big Tobacco; later, the near death of his only
son was offered up in sentimental speeches that were designed
to imbue the politician-father with an air of humanity. And last
spring, at the height of his bloody war on Bill Bradley, Gore
resorted to embarrassing Gospel-meeting inflections to address
an African-American church. The next day he selected a rabbinical
monotone while speaking in a synagogue.
If you accept all these tenets, Gore is not
stiff. He's a chameleon. He is a fraud. And if the Dunce archetype
is a mother lode of comedy, isn't the Fraud label just as fecund
for the late-night boys? Historically, haven't the archetypes
of the Liar, of the Tartuffe, provided soil as rich as that which
nourishes the Dunce? And considering that "stiff" is arguably
the outward shell of "fake," why is Gore given the gentler caricature?
A knee-jerk conservative response might be to cry conspiracy and
accuse lefty writers of working to boost their man. Bush himself
might rightly sense something subliminable at work.
Comedy writers say no. They fleetingly admit
that their own passions affect their ideas of what's funny. But
the more they think about the bias issue, their answer is no.
They're sure of it.
In their view, the phenomenon has a less exotic
provenance. Dimwittedness is a pure attribute; comedically, it
is clean fuel, free of all the muddying effects of complexity.
The Liar persona too often requires reference to the Lie. And
in the news cycles on which news-comedy feeds, there just aren't
as many lies as gaffes.
Eddie Feldmann of "Dennis Miller Live" points
out that the Fraud model would never work -- that a mass audience
would need to be too well versed to accept this line of comedy.
"They'd have to listen to what Gore says, not what he's known
for," says Feldmann. "He was pegged early on, and it's hard to
break the stereotype once you set it."
Not that Feldmann hasn't done some reconnaissance
in Fraud territory. Last month, Miller nodded at the theme: "Al
Gore couldn't be more phony if he were a professional Al Gore
impersonator." Still, the late-nighters have limited their experimentation
with Gore as Fraud. Like Feldmann, Mulligan says it's simply too
"For a brief period, Gore's fraud was in play
with that Buddhist temple and all," he says distantly, as if recalling
trivia from the life of James K. Polk. "But these things flip-flop.
For some reason, and I can't imagine why, we made a lateral move.
"Of course, it's almost a coin flip which way
you choose to go," he continues. "Eventually, you have so much
invested. You need shorter setups to bring the audience into the
This logic -- that the pols' fictitious personae
are built, then become immutable in the rigid glow of public approval
-- doesn't hold up. Bush's persona evolved, and not just on Conan
O'Brien's show. Why not Gore's? The coin flip has landed tails
for Bush, on each and every late-night program.
It could be argued that Dumb has defeated Stiff
before, in the 1984 race between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale.
But there were mitigating factors: Reagan's acting abilities staved
off comedy's best attacks. When he misspoke, he did so with a
statesmanlike cadence, not by gibbering. As for Mondale, he never
managed to convince the comics that his stiffness was a metaphor
for policy-driven competence.
Earlier this month, Mulligan made one of his
occasional appearances on the Letterman show. Dressed in his shlumpy
work clothes, he issued an impassioned plea about the November
election. "I sincerely hope you cast your vote for George W. Bush,"
he implored, with just the right note of pathos. "I'm a 53-year-old
comedy writer, and to be honest, I don't feel like working that
hard anymore." Mulligan went on to speak of his ambition to "sit
around all day, eating Funions and playing computer solitaire.
But this beautiful dream is only possible if we have a really
dumb guy in the White House."
Good comedy is never a victimless crime. Though
it is conceivable that the late-nights may have stumbled onto
the fairest possible stereotypes -- that Gore is stiff but not
sufficiently corrupt and, to put it politely, that the following
Dennis Miller joke is justified: "Bush promises to spend an additional
$13 billion on education. O.K., George, that covers you. Now what
about the rest of the country?"
Of course, at the end of the day, it's all just
comedy. No one's on fire. Chances are, the electorate will get
a few chances in the next 44 days to take a more serious look
at Bush and Gore.
The last time I saw Gerard Mulligan he was sitting
as usual in his airy office, surrounded by two decades of comedy
flotsam. On one wall were cue cards from an old bit, evoking Letterman's
well-honed image as a heartless swine: the host wished Mulligan
a happy birthday on air, and the producer replied, "Dave, Gerry
died six years ago."
"Historically, if you think about it, comedians'
behavior has been conservative," Mulligan told me. "They point
out anything that isn't normal. They say, 'Look at that guy's
lime-green pants!' They make fun of silly new dances."
Just then, a writer popped his head around the
door to mention a news item of the day; he was wondering which
way to go with it. Mulligan rolled his eyes. "Add the word intern
and we're home."
This, of course, is the house joke: the staff
has been sick of Monica jokes for ages. "Interns still kill,"
Mulligan said in the jargon, "and it's a shame."
I pressed him a bit on how he meant that conservative-comedians
theory. Obviously he was no conservative. We'd had drawn-out discussions
about the campaign -- the next president's Supreme Court appointments,
some economic issues -- and I knew which candidate he supported.
But he certainly wouldn't claim that comedy was being overrun
by Young Republicans in John Kasich haircuts. I thought of what
I'd heard from Gerald Ford and other conservatives: how there
should be some responsibility in the way Mulligan and his ilk
wield their swords. A little fairness.
"Oh, I don't know," he said, distracted
by the soundless flicker of news on his office set. "To say comedy
writers should take all this more seriously is an odd demand.
If you want seriousness, go watch C-SPAN."