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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 contrast, satirists Maher and "Boondocks" creator Aaron McGruder say their material maintains a consistent political agenda -- something that viewers "can plant their flag in," says Maher, who adds that his litmus test is: "If I took out the laughs, would it serve as an interesting speech?"

He tries "not to make jokes on a premise that I don't believe in" and says comedians have a responsibility to make sure the audience knows where the real premise ends and the punch lines begin. "The public is gullible," says Maher.

So we ask the host of HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher": Do political comics do anything besides make us titter and guffaw?

"I definitely think so," says Maher by phone, while taking a break from finishing his satirical film "Religulous." "If someone does something twice, it becomes a reputation. Hillary becomes a congenital liar [after] all the comedians jump" -- a reference to the candidate's false claim of coming under sniper attack in Bosnia. "If they're all making the same joke, that's the danger. Then there's a solidifying effect and it becomes a truth."

Maher comes to Constitution Hall weeks after a show there by Chris Rock, who delivered biting riffs on all three major presidential candidates. Rock -- a vocal Obama supporter who portrayed a black presidential candidate in 2003's "Head of State" -- downplays any political influence he himself might have as a comic, but he acknowledges the potential power of electoral satire. The comic, speaking by phone, says he grew up hearing the lesson that back in 1960, "Kennedy didn't beat Nixon. Satire beat Nixon."

Garry Trudeau, though -- who first made a name for himself by satirizing Watergate-era Nixon -- thinks that the satirist's wit makes not one whit of difference.

"I've never felt any of us had significant influence," says the Pulitzer-winning creator of "Doonesbury" (which returns Monday after a hiatus). "For something to be funny, the audience has to be in a position to sense the truth of it. It has to be primed. Satire can crystallize what's already in the air, but it can't really put it there."

Ben Karlin, the co-creator of "The Colbert Report" and a veteran of "The Daily Show" and the Onion, echoes that zero-influence sentiment. "Satire is useless," says Karlin, whose recent humor anthology, "Things I've Learned From Women Who've Dumped Me," counts former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey among its contributors. "If it wasn't, people would have gone ahead and eaten babies, like Swift so reasonably proposed." (Jonathan Swift, of course, famously gave Ireland the ultimate tongue-in-cheek twist on "baby food.")

Russell L. Peterson, an American studies professor at the University of Iowa, believes comics who refute satire's power are purposefully insincere. "But they have a good reason for being disingenuous," adds the author of "Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into a Joke." "Their comic license depends on them denying that." * * *

For those who don't follow the media closely, satirical shows can hold even greater sway. If Stewart and Colbert and Maher are the ones installing the news in a viewer's mind -- as part of their setup before instilling their humorous slant -- then they're functioning as both messenger and comic massager: a one-stop plug-and-play for the iPod generation. For younger viewers especially, McGruder notes, satire is an inviting environment to get the news bundled with the jokes.

The blurring of news and entertainment, comedy and punditry, also contributes to the shift. When news accounts report in earnest that radiohead Rush Limbaugh might have the clout to tilt Hoosiers toward Hillary during a primary, it's not so far-fetched to speculate that a "Saturday Night Live" sketch -- say, one that accuses reporters of going soft on Barack and being harder on Hillary -- also might have a real-world ripple effect.

Black, who hosts Comedy Central's "Root of All Evil," is among the critics who contend: "People should not be getting news from comedians."

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