Pulling Their Punch Lines

Jay Leno and other late-night hosts have fodder for punch lines, but no outlet (or writers).
Jay Leno and other late-night hosts have fodder for punch lines, but no outlet (or writers). (By Richard Vogel -- Associated Press)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 29, 2007

The great national strategic political comedy reserve has been depleted.

Thanks to the TV writers' strike, millions of citizens have been deprived (for 24 days now!) of their late-night dose of sarcasm and slashing wit, of irony and smart-aleck quips. No Letterman, no Leno, no Stewart or Colbert.

As a compressed schedule of presidential primaries rapidly approaches, the nation's Irony Deficiency comes at the worst possible time. Without late-night comedy, how will we really know what or whom to make fun of? With a few precious weeks before Iowa and New Hampshire, will political journalists be forced to create their own caricatures of the candidates without any help from "Saturday Night Live," Conan or even that Scottish guy?

More important is the general loss of swagger and sass on TV. What would we be as a nation without our nightly ridicule, our daily back-talking to, and humiliation of, the pretenders to power? Answer: We'd be Canada.

Look at all the juicy targets that have passed without extracurricular commentary these past three-plus weeks. What would "Indecision 2008" have done with Hillary Clinton's comment about being able to stand the heat of the campaign because she's "real comfortable in the kitchen"? What would Leno make of Mike Huckabee's surge in Iowa (and his endorsements from both Chuck Norris and former pro wrestler Ric "Nature Boy" Flair)? What fun could "SNL" have with the news that arch-social-conservative Pat Robertson has endorsed Republican Rudy Giuliani, a candidate who: (a) is thrice-married, (b) once engaged in an openly adulterous affair, (c) is pro-abortion and (d) supports gay and lesbian rights?

If an irony falls in the primary and there's no late-night comic to tell a joke about it, did it really exist?

There's really no substitute to fill the parody void. Although the occasional JibJab satire will go "viral" on the Internet, the Web has no equivalent to Leno and Letterman for consistent political satire.

Besides, the candidates need late-night comedy shows as much as the electorate does. A guest appearance on "The Tonight Show" telegraphs that the candidate gets the joke, that he or she is just plain folk. Candidates have known this for decades, whether it's Richard Nixon appearing on "Laugh-In" or Bill Clinton scoring cool points by playing the sax on "The Arsenio Hall Show." Until the strike, Hillary Clinton had appeared twice on Letterman's "Late Show," perhaps to show that she's not the ice maiden portrayed by Letterman and others in their monologues.

There's also nothing like the late-night comedy shows to establish, or perhaps just reinforce, a candidate's persona. Indeed, almost any major politician of recent vintage can be reduced to his TV comedy caricature. Bill Clinton: philanderer, glutton, liar. George W. Bush: inarticulate, incompetent, a puppet of Vice President Cheney. Al Gore (pre-Nobel Prize): pompous, wooden, wonky. Sometimes even reality follows satire: During the 2000 campaign, Gore aides showed him tapes of Darrell Hammond's sublime impersonation of him on "Saturday Night Live" to demonstrate how he was perceived in the popular culture.

And then there's Hillary Clinton.

The Democratic senator from New York and former first lady is the candidate who stands to gain most from the late-night programs' hiatus, says S. Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, which has studied political humor. That's because Clinton has been the butt of the joke far more often than any other candidate. By the media center's calculations, there have been 186 Hillary jokes on five late-night shows since the start of the year, compared with 72 about Giuliani and 56 about Barack Obama, the next two most-cracked-about candidates.

Clinton, in fact, has been the subject of almost as many wisecracks as all of her Democratic rivals combined.

The jokes have tended to play on the same few themes: Hillary as long-suffering wife, Hillary as chilly and robotic. (Sample: "Former president Bill Clinton says he has been very, very concerned about global warming. In fact, earlier this week, another chunk of ice fell off his wife." -- Letterman.)

Which leads Lichter to observe, "The absence [of comedy shows] from the airwaves makes it easier for Mrs. Clinton to appear presidential."

Viewers, he says, don't really remember a joke. But they remember a barrage of jokes that repeat the same kinds of punch lines. "Getting attention isn't the same as getting praise," Lichter says. ". . . When you're getting clobbered with jokes, it helps the dark horses [in the race]. If you take that away, it doesn't give the contenders an advantage. It just leaves the current situation at status quo."

That's not just wrong. That's un-American. Hurry back, Dave and Jon and Jay and . . .

© 2007 The Washington Post Company