"On topic of war, most late-night hosts tread lightly"
The Boston Globe
March 13, 2003
by Matthew Gilbert


Late-night TV irreverence has become a formulaic business. Right before the glittery guests hit the couch, our trusty white male host pitches a monologue peppered with goofy political one-liners. Yes, Bill Clinton and Zippergate have been replaced by George W. Bush's poor linguistic skills, and the excesses of Saddam Hussein now get as much attention as those of Michael Jackson. But otherwise, the boys of late night - from Jay Leno and David Letterman to Craig Kilborn and Conan O'Brien - lob their topical softballs right on schedule before moving on to more escapist fare.

Maybe that's why Jon Stewart stands out. This week, for instance, the host of Comedy Central's ''The Daily Show'' devoted his half hour to the question of war in Iraq and guest Les Gelb, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Rather than serving up the requisite Hans Blix joke and pushing forward, Stewart let his passion take over the entire show. ''Right now we are freaked,'' he said to Gelb, who is in favor of deposing Saddam, and the conversation became surprisingly in-depth. Gelb is a think-tank intellectual with little demographic appeal, and you'd expect to find him on the cable talking-head circuit and not a satirical comedy show.

Unlike most late-night political moments, Stewart's talk with Gelb was off the cuff. And Stewart took an even bigger risk by displaying an openly caustic attitude toward Bush, calling him ''the crazy cowboy guy'' and bemoaning his role in our decreasing international popularity. Most of the late-night comics are willing to ridicule Bush, in the manner of this Conan O'Brien joke: ''According to the Associated Press, there's a rumor that Saddam Hussein is now hiding weapons in schools. When asked why, Saddam said, `Because a school is the last place President Bush will look.''' But they consistently restrain themselves from revealing a definitive point of view about the war.

''You have a different charge when you're Jay Leno,'' says Ben Karlin, coexecutive producer of ''The Daily Show.'' ''When you're on Comedy Central, tucked

Go to www.boston.com to weigh in on late-night talk-show material about Iraq.

among episodes of `Saturday Night Live,' you don't have the same kind of concerns. Honestly, we don't care about the audience. We hope people are engaged in what we're saying, but we don't talk in advance about whether viewers will like it.''

He says Stewart and the show's writers meet in the morning for a venting session, and then the jokes come out. ''It's our personal way of dealing with our own frustrations. We air complaints, then make them funny and not didactic for the show.''

When Leno delivers his political material, you don't feel that he's venting personally. He certainly has filled his recent monologues with goofs on Bush as much as on Hussein, Dan Rather, Sean Penn, or France. (Indeed, a study last year by the Center for Media and Public Affairs showed that Leno typically tells far more political jokes than rival Letterman, who's on a brief sick leave.) But Leno makes his knocks with the same easy mien with which he'd toss off a bit about Pamela Anderson.

Likewise, he jumps from one perspective to another, so that the jokes are for a laugh, and not for finger pointing. One minute, he's bopping Bush on the nose: ''The Pentagon still hasn't given a name to the Iraqi war. Somehow Operation Reelect Bush doesn't quite cut it.'' The next, he's sounding more avid about war: ''Saddam Hussein in his interview with Dan Rather said he would rather die than leave his country in exile. Finally, something we can agree on, he'd rather die and we'd rather kill him.'' It's all good. That's entertainment.

Karlin says that if and when the war starts, it will be more challenging for late-night comics. ''Once there's loss of life, it's harder to sit in the back of the room lobbing spitballs.''


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