Edward Helmore on why comedy
could be the deciding factor in the US presidential election
Two weeks ago, when Al Gore's presidential hopes appeared to be
slipping with each new poll, he took a call from his boss, the
president. Otherwise shut out of his deputy's campaign, Clinton
urged vice-president Gore to watch a Saturday Night Live parody
of his TV debates with his Republican rival. After first resisting,
Gore acceded to Clinton's almost unerring political instinct.
The tape revealed the public's perception of the candidate and
his media-genic shortcomings that no pollster or focus group could
touched on one of the few political realities of this campaign -
that TV comedy has become one of the few clarifying elements of
a political discourse obfuscated by hours of punditry, spin and
anti-spin. As Americans tune out from serious political coverage
and analysis, they are getting more of their election news from
late-night talk. A recent survey found that 47% of people aged between
18 and 29 often gleaned information from these programmes, along
with a quarter of all adults.
"So much coverage in the main stream press is
dishonest and manipulative," says Columbia University journalism
professor Craig Wolff. "To me, the humorists are in some ways
presenting the most honest coverage."
Politics as TV comedy is hardly new and has
been gaining momentum since Richard Nixon appeared on the 60s
show Laugh-In. What's new is just how blurred the line between
politics, news and entertainment has become. Late-night comedy
talk shows such as those of Jay Leno and David Letterman have
become political essentials, both as barometers of how the campaigns
are playing ("If it makes it onto Leno or Letterman that really
means something," said Gore press secretary Chris Lehane recently)
and through appearances by the candidates themselves - a way of
personalising their brand.
To former Texas governor Anne Richards, it's
become almost more important for candidates to show a sense of
humour than to demonstrate a grasp of the issues when debating
their opponents. A good joke can be incredibly effective in getting
your message out, she says, "because people repeat it". And that's
invaluable for politicians because with an electorate disenchanted
with politics and an election said to hinge on a small number
of swing voters, humour has become one of the few ways of gaining
"It's a question of the different people you
need to reach," says political columnist-turned satirist Arianna
Huffington. "There are people who already agree with you, and
you can says things as flatly and blandly as you want, and they're
with you. But then there are those who need to be convinced that
the election matters."
But while Gore has appeared on Letterman and
Leno, and Bush has kissed Oprah Winfrey on Oprah, been on a morning
talk show with Regis Philbin, the host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?,
and had an unhappy (and un-repeated) experience on Letterman in
March, none of the current crop of candidates besides Gore's democrat
running mate Al Lieberman have dared venture on to The Daily Show
on Comedy Central.
The programme, hosted by Jon Stewart, has emerged
as America's sharpest satire. First broadcast in 1996, The Daily
Show has become one of the few programmes smart enough to come
close to capturing the absurdity not just of the US political
process but of the media that cover the news and the pundits that
interpret and re-interpret it.
In a show presented as a seemingly real newscast,
Stewart and his team of correspondents spoof what increasingly
feels like unreal news. As the 37-year-old Stewart himself liked
to quip during coverage of the political conventions in the summer:
"We're a fake news organisation covering a fake news event." But
that didn't stop the game (and very funny) senator Bob Dole appearing
as the programme's deskbound political pundit, or John McCain
agreeing to be interviewed by Stewart faking a real interview.
In creating a comedy show that looks like a
news broadcast, The Daily Show's formula is to satirise every
element of the political process, from the pretensions of the
candidates themselves to the over-heated pronouncements of pundits.
Some is semi-subtle (Stewart explaining that
when Bush says "subliminable" instead of subliminal, he was probably
thinking of "executing some criminables"). Some is not. At the
Republican convention a shot of Bush sitting with his wife appeared
to reveal an erection. "Welcome to the Johnson administration,"
quipped the commentary.
Since the primaries in January The Daily Show
has been covering the election as part of its nightly look at
news and events. Indecision 2000, as the political segment is
called, is just one part of the proceedings but one that has established
the show. Stewart, who started out as a stand-up comedian, and
last year made the list of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful,
understands exactly what it's about: "The longer I'm doing this
I'm coming to learn that entertainment, politics and the media
are really just juggling the same balls. We're all going for ratings,
so we function by the same rules. What's a political poll other
than a focus group for a television show?"
Madeleine Smithberg, co-creator of The Daily
Show, dates comedy's new importance to the political process from
the occassion when Clinton went on the Arsenio Hall show in 1992
and played the saxophone. "That signalled a whole new ballgame,"
she says. "This year there's this huge emphasis on entertainment
and whether the candi dates can be funny. But it's not like they
have stopped doing Sunday morning television or serious talk shows.
It's just that we now have this unbelievable proliferation of
media venues and everyone is just hedging their bets. Maybe they'll
be showing up on sitcoms or on Millionaire. Everyone is pretending
they're in it for some sort of noble motive. But we're in it for
the laugh. We get to pinpoint the absurdities rampant throughout
There's no doubt that the constraints of US
political life have played into the hands of the satirists, and
that the Lewinsky affair finally stripped politics of its last
vestiges of propriety. In this election - beyond Bush's aptitude
for malapropisms, non-sequiturs and plain nonsense, and Gore's
dull monotone - the candidates played themselves into the hands
of satirists as never before by going to great lengths to say
as little as possible.
On Oprah, for instance, the hostess gave each
one hour to tell the electorate how much they loved their family
and name their favourite food, plus a filmed report called "Remembering
Your Spirit" on how the Gores and the Bushes preserve the spirit
of their marriages. If getting votes means appearing with a man
who smashes wooden planks on his head (as Bush did on Letterman)
or singing My Way (as Lieberman did on Conan O'Brian) so be it.
"All you really do with comedy," says Jay Leno,
"is clarify the news a little. Your role is to take the spin out
of the story and get to the joke at its heart." CNN's chief political
analyst Wolf Blitzer concedes that comedy now has an elevated
role in the process. "There's no doubt all this comedy has an
impact," he told the New York Times. "Elections are won and lost
on public perception in that kind of popular culture."
But as the hunt to find and win over the crucial
but possibly non-existent "undecided voter" peaks before the November
7 vote, US comedians know they have a golden opportunity. To Smithberg,
the quest for the undecided voter is itself absurd. "It's ironic,
because the undecided voter has become the most empowered voting
block, and these are people who are absolutely incapable of making
a decision. We've somehow given this most important decision over
to the idiots who can't make a decision! We've empowered the fools."
If, by some strange fluke, Smithberg's fools
are also the ones who watch The Daily Show when it beams out of
New York on weekday nights at 11 pm, then late-night comedy might
indeed prove to be the deciding factor in the election. But there's
really no way of telling. On election night, Stewart and his gang
of correspondents will be on duty pinpointing the comedy that
is the marriage between political discourse and the media. "We'll
be pinpointing the absurdities. We'll be doing the analysis of
the analysis and then analysing that."
Presidential comedy: the contenders
Lantern-jawed stand-up comic who inherited the
Tonight show from Johnny Carson. Refuses to disclose political
allegiance 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". Regular segment involves him quizzing
ordinary Americans on the street - 6 out of 10 can't identify
Best campaign gag: "They executed a
guy with an IQ of 63. Can you believe it? Bush turning his back
on one of his own!"
Formerly hosted off-the-wall post-midnight show
which influenced the likes of Jonathan Ross in UK; now Leno's
big late-night (but not so late) rival. Both candidates have guested
on his Late Show: Gore read out a Top 10 list including: "Remember
America - I gave you the Internet, and I can take it away. Think
about it."; Bush made a tasteless and contorted reference to Letterman's
recent heart surgery. The audience booed their disapproval.
Best campaign gag:
"Al Gore spent the day at the beach with his
family. And, I believe, to relax, George W Bush watched an execution."
Fronted The Jon Stewart Show from 1994-95; then
took over The Daily Show in a four-year, $6m deal that also allows
him to pursue his acting career. Made regular appearances on The
Larry Sanders Show where he played a spoof guest host gunning
for Sanders' job.
Best campaign gag:
(On the video of Bush talking about his "subliminable"
RATS advertising) "Yes, he said 'subliminable'. But he was probably
distracted, thinking about executing some criminables."
Compiled by Merope Mills.