Comedians Of Clout

Jon Stewart's faux news
Jon Stewart's faux news "Daily Show." One college professor reportedly said, "My students tell me they read the news for the facts, but they watch Jon Stewart for the truth." (By Jason Decrow -- Associated Press)
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By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Onion newspaper jokingly dissects how Barack Obama calculates his every facial expression to convey the countenance of Inspirational Leadership. Jon Stewart jests that Obama strikes poses so evocative of the forefathers on our currency, he's not campaigning merely for president but rather is "running for coin." And comic Lewis Black kvetches during a recent Washington performance that Obama exudes such off-the-charts optimism in these trying times, "even his nipples are filled with hope!"

Yes, nation, our sharpest satirists are ramping up. As they chip-chip-chip away at presumptive nominees Obama and John McCain to get laughs, they're also sculpting handy-dandy political caricatures that begin to take hold in the public chatosphere. Pointed campaign humor has more prominent platforms in this historic presidential election than ever before, from YouTube to Onion.com videos to the continued growth of satiric cable comedy.

Not that most satirists are quick to claim singular credit for our perceptions of the candidates; many humorists, in fact, insist they have no phone-booth costume changes to lend them cultural kapow. But some satirists, such as James Downey -- the veteran "Saturday Night Live" writer who coined the classic Bush malapropism "strategery" -- believe a chorus of comic monologues can move the political needle with viewers, voters and a not-so-infallible media. "Satire has a role in the democratic process," he says, adding: "The right sketch can be worth more than 1,000 words in Foreign Affairs quarterly."

Could this new class of video-splicing entertainers be joining the great American club that editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast first founded with a pen more than a century ago?

Well, in the name of the greater public good, we've read the academic comedy studies (as oxymoronic as that sounds) and pored over the poll numbers. We resolved to watch more online video and late-night TV satire than you can shake a shtick at. We made pilgrimages to see Stewart and Black and Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher and Dave Chappelle perform their stand-up live -- typically when they were tantalizingly within mere cab-meter clicks of the White House and the Capitol. Having recovered from this comic binge, there is only one rallying-cry reply to the question, "Can satirists affect our perceptions of the candidates?":

Yes, They Can. You bet your keister -- Yes, They Can.

* * *

The last thing Downey wants is for you to take him seriously. At least when he's writing for NBC's "Saturday Night Live."

Downey has written many memorable election sketches for "SNL," including this season's mock Democratic debate that skewered the media with accusations of going soft on Obama. The sketch tripped the pop-culture radar when a campaigning Hillary Clinton referenced it in one of the debates -- in an answer to a question about NAFTA. That thrust "SNL" into the center of a whole other debate: Some observers speculated that the comedic scrutiny actually altered press coverage; others countered that tougher Obama press was coming, and the late-night show simply showed great comic timing.

The sketch's author, though, insists that his own strategery involves only two goals: to be funny and not to be stupid. "I'm not trying to say something profound or important. . . . I hope to God no one takes their political cues from me."

Yet Downey -- who has crafted political sketches for 27 of "SNL's" 33 seasons -- acknowledges that such humor, when it plugs squarely into the zeitgeist, can have a cultural resonance, especially if it comes from several people. "I have to believe when Stewart and Colbert and Bill Maher each do their own take," Downey says, "there is a cumulative effect of that."

Still, some writers for "SNL" and "The Daily Show" insist their only agenda is to be anti-Establishment: Shoot for the fattest, funniest targets in power -- even those they make nice with when they're guests on the shows.


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