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Zippergate have been replaced by George W. Bush's poor linguistic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
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