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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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Ah, but they are.

Among viewers ages 18-29, 39 percent said they learned about the presidential candidates and campaign at least sometimes from comedy shows and late-night programs such as "Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," according to a Pew Research Center survey last December.

Other News vs. Comedy cases pop up on the dial: In its season finale last month, "Saturday Night Live" attracted about 6.5 million viewers. "CBS Evening News" is averaging about 5.7 million viewers nightly. That means that Amy Poehler, the diminutive, perky faux anchor, garners a larger audience to watch her deliver fake news than Katie Couric, the diminutive, perky true-life anchor, does to see her deliver real news.

A similar numbers game plays out on the cable channels. "The Daily Show" drew about 1.8 million viewers recently, as clocked for a Pew study, putting the program on a ratings par with Fox News's "Hannity and Colmes," and exceeding such other news-commentary shows as Chris Matthews's "Hardball" on MSNBC. In comparison, Fox News's "The O'Reilly Factor" draws about 2.6 million viewers nightly.

Pew's Tom Rosenstiel likes to quote a Michigan State University professor who last year relayed this: "My students tell me they read the news for the facts, but they watch Jon Stewart for the truth."

That makes Lizz Winstead, co-creator of "The Daily Show," a success. She says she helped launch the show in 1996 because some politically passionate comedians began to ask the questions that they believed many television journalists were no longer asking. This was at a time, she says, when TV news divisions' "money formerly for research seemed to now go into the graphics department."

For many satirists, their role "transitioned from taking on the hypocrisy to having an obligation" to question through humor, says Winstead, a Huffington Post contributor who will appear at the D.C. Comedy Fest in August.

That serious sense of mission still comes through today, Rosenstiel says, especially in "The Daily Show's" signature use of video footage. "It's very pointed, and that point is more than to amuse people -- it's meant to outrage, and it's political commentary in the form of satire."

One notable fan of such pointed satire is a frequent guest, former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who says, "I actually enjoy the edgy humor that pushes right to the boundaries, because it's most likely to touch the nerve of the electorate."

As this year's presidential contenders have suffered the slings and rubber arrows of satire, many political observers say Huckabee was the savviest candidate in terms of exploiting late-show exposure. The former pastor is also acutely aware of the late-night perils.

"It's possible that a politician can end up being defined by the caricature -- as in Chevy Chase's creating the image of Gerald Ford as a bumbler," says Huckabee, referring to "SNL's" broad impersonation in the mid-'70s. For elected officials, Huckabee notes, the true value of these programs is to show that they're human and have a sense of humor and aren't some "political Frankenstein."

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