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Comedians Of Clout
In a Funny Way, Satirical Takes Can Color Perceptions of the Presidential Contenders

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.

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."

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."

* * *

So a Jewish atheist comic, a Hill-veteran Democrat and a pack of Washingtonians walk into a synagogue. The lady and the atheist comic have been arguing about politics and religion, and suddenly this Old Testament thunderclap rumbles overhead . . .

. . . And Lewis Black gives an exaggerated jump, as if God Himself is punctuating Black's talk Tuesday night at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. He's on book tour for "Me of Little Faith." The real setup to Black's current political satire is Iraq. And both political parties. And other culpable culprits. Satire "rose in stature because of the war," he says in an interview. "This presidency is madness. . . . The media was supposed to go 10 more yards -- so was the Democratic Party and Congress." In an age when all politics is loco, "the only influence I have" is to use humor to get the electorate "to try to [expletive] focus. "

Will Durst, author of the new book "The All-American Sport of Bipartisan Bashing: Common Sense Rantings From a Raging Moderate," is among the performers who point the finger solely at the White House. The president's policies, he says wryly, "have resulted in the No Comic Left Behind Act."

* * *

John McCain is a doddering fossil. Hillary is pathological ambition poured into a frigid pantsuit. And Barack -- well, Barack Hussein Obama's mere name is mined for cheap yuks because comedically, he's proved about as hard to pin back as a pair of protruding ears.

Those are one-note caricatures perpetuated weeknightly largely by broadcast TV's late-night chat hosts, who are paid to multiply audiences by the lowest comedic denominator. And because of this political shtick, Peterson, the author and University of Iowa academic, accuses Leno and Letterman and Conan and company of practicing only "pseudo-satire."

True satirists, Peterson contends, are genuine critics -- much as commentators and "punditificators" are. Which is why he believes the likes of Stewart and Colbert are healthy contributors to the election's national conversation -- whether they themselves subscribe to such influence or not.

McGruder, the "Boondocks" creator, says satire appeals to many young people at a time when they're discovering politics. "That's your biggest window of opportunity," says the 34-year-old cartoonist, though "it may not manifest for another 10 to 15 years."

And once satire takes hold, perhaps its greatest influence is encouraging critical thought. "Good satire goes beyond the specific point it's trying to make and teaches you how to think critically," McGruder says. "Even after your favorite cartoonist retires or Colbert wraps it up, you're not left believing everything they're telling you."

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