"The Stiff Guy vs. the Dumb Guy"
The New York Times Magazine
September 24, 2000
by Marshall Sella


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 find boring."

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 cash legally."

"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 would."

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 already."

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 absurdism.

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 a little."

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 it up!"

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 Adlai Stevenson.

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 nation."

"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, so scared!"

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 Crank.

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 catch complexities."

"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 have done."

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 TV entertainment.

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.

"Jejewsalem. Ja-jew-selem."

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 late.

"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 joke."

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."


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