Laughing on the inside

With today’s crop of television shows, you have to know politics to get the jokes

During the last U.S. election cycle, there was a lot of talk about whether viewers were getting their political knowledge from late-night comedy. The Pew Research Center, the respected U.S. polling firm, produced a poll in 2004 that said 21 per cent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 21 were getting their political information from comedy shows like The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and, back when Tina Fey was a regular cast member, Saturday Night Live. But this time around, it turns out that late-night comedy isn’t out to teach us about politics; it depends on us to know about politics. A Pew survey released this year showed that regular viewers of The Daily Show and its spinoff, The Colbert Report, tend to be more politically knowledgeable and aware than average. Asked to identify political figures like Condoleezza Rice and Gordon Brown, regular Daily Show viewers did better than people who watch NBC News, Larry King Live, or even ESPN. Meanwhile, Saturday Night Live, whose political comedy used to be limited to jokes about the way George H.W. Bush moved his hands while he talked, has become part of the world political conversation, especially but not only in the appearances of Tina Fey (now a guest star) as vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and sketches about other topics that only political junkies used to care about. TV comedy can no longer be satisfied with generic jokes about John McCain’s age (though there are still plenty of those). The writers have found themselves forced to adapt to a viewership that actually knows and cares about who Nancy Pelosi and Ben Bernanke are. Well, maybe not cares.

The traditional political joke was summed up by a 1994 episode of The Simpsons in which an electronically generated disc jockey was programmed to say: “Well, I see those clowns in Congress are at it again.” Political comedy, when delivered to a mainstream audience, needed to be as bland as possible, because TV and radio executives didn’t want to risk offending people or, worse, referring to things they didn’t know about. (A recent DVD collection of the ’60s show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour is mostly devoted to episodes that were cut or censored by CBS for actually making war and election jokes that weren’t generic.) And so for the most part, politicians and political issues were reduced to the simplest things: Jean Chrétien talked funny, Gerald Ford fell down.

But today, these shows are operating on the assumption that their audiences are following politics as closely as they do sports or celebrities. In the same episode that featured a memorable parody of the Sarah Palin-Joe Biden vice-presidential debate, SNL did a sketch about the Wall Street bailout that was in some ways even better, and nothing like the normal SNL political skit: instead of reducing the issue to its simplest terms, the sketch focused on specific policy details that even a devoted news junkie might not know about. Two of the SNL regulars played Herb and Marion Sandler, the former owners of a savings and loan who sold out to the ill-fated Wachovia bank in 2006; the sketch portrayed them as culprits in the mortgage meltdown and included a caption identifying them as “People who should be shot.” (NBC later removed this caption at the urging of nervous lawyers.) The reference was so obscure that Lorne Michaels claimed he had no idea that his writers were making fun of real people: “I, in a state of complete ignorance, thought they were characters in the piece,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I did not know they were real, up until somebody called me about it on Monday.”

It’s not only SNL that is getting into specific issues and taking on specific targets; it’s not even restricted to sketch comedy. Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, which swept the Emmys last month, has done some of the most openly political material of any sitcom, including an episode bashing NBC’s parent company, General Electric, for its hypocritical attempts to make money by jumping on the environmentalism bandwagon. When the title character of My Name is Earl went to jail, his convict number was the same as Scooter Libby’s, a joke that was intended only for people who had followed the Valerie Plame case obsessively. And the shows that kick-started the trend, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, are making more and more jokes that are incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t reading blogs every day. When the stock market rallied last Monday, Colbert said: “Henry Paulson’s plan to change his plan to whatever the Europeans were planning is working.” It’s a quick joke, but one that assumes that the audience knows who the U.S. treasury secretary is, that he was in charge of a bailout plan, and that he had recently embraced an economic plan originally proposed by European countries. Serious movies and shows about politics have mostly bombed, but get funny about the most depressing and arcane political issues, and you’ll be an international hero.

What happened to destroy the great, safe tradition of jokes about Bill Clinton’s sex life or Ross Perot’s ears? Well, for one thing, YouTube. Any interview, sound bite or political event will be on YouTube in a matter of minutes, whether it’s Sarah Palin’s Katie Couric interview or Barack Obama’s epic confrontation with Joe the Plumber. Whereas comedy writers used to get most of their political joke ideas from the morning’s headlines, they now have access to stories that the newspapers might have been slow to pick up on—and if a story gets a huge number of YouTube hits, the writers instantly know that it’s interesting to the public.

“Most comedy writers surf the Net a lot, so they’ll be exposed to that,” says Mark Farrell, executive producer of the CBC’s long-running political satire show This Hour Has 22 Minutes. “I’m not saying they’re ahead of everybody, but they’re ahead of just regular folks when it comes to going to YouTube.” What’s more, YouTube allows political comedy sketches to become part of the zeitgeist; even though Saturday Night Live keeps pulling its sketches off YouTube, part of what made the Palin and Wall Street bailout segments so popular is that they were frequently viewed on YouTube, where comments threads turned into arguments about the political issues involved, and made the sketches a real part of the online political conversation.

Blogs have also played a part in shaping the jokes we hear on TV, alerting hosts and writers to interesting topics or highlighting issues that might not normally turn up on a comedy show. Stephen Colbert’s show frequently quotes blogs from the right and the left; after the second McCain-Obama debate, he quoted two conservative bloggers who were upset with McCain for not talking about Obama’s association with ’60s radical William Ayers. And when David Letterman interviewed John McCain on his show (after a much-publicized cancellation by McCain a few weeks earlier), he asked McCain if his friendship with Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy was comparable to Obama’s association with Ayers; this was a question that no other interviewer had asked, but a comparison that had been all over the blogs for weeks on end. By using questions and jokes about topics from the blogosphere, and assuming that audiences will get the references, Letterman has managed to give his comedy a trendiness and a bite that it hasn’t had for a while—especially compared to his rival, Jay Leno, who’s still doing jokes about congressional vacations and Joe Biden’s hair plugs.

But at least generic humour has the traditional advantage of being accessible to everyone. The danger with more specific jokes is that they could alienate the people in the audience who don’t get the reference—or, as in the case of the SNL bailout sketch, maybe even call down the wrath of lawyers. Farrell says that he and the writers at This Hour sometimes need to explain an obscure political joke for the benefit of people who aren’t surfing the Net every day. When they
did a sketch about the controversy over columnist Heather Mallick and her bashing of Sarah Palin, he says, they started it with a full explanation of what the controversy was: “Arguably it could have worked without the long set-up, but I thought: people are going to be so weirded out if they don’t know who Heather Mallick is.” He adds, however, that with shorter jokes, it doesn’t necessarily matter if some people in the audience don’t get it: “We’re not going to open with it, but we might put it in because those who get it will really like it. It’s better in general when we assume the audience knows more.”

The other downside of all this political content is that shows are constantly covering the same material every night; sometimes Colbert will do the exact same stories (and show the same clips) as Stewart, while over on CBS, Letterman is making similar jokes at the same time. Farrell notes that the glut of political comedy can be hard on a weekly show like This Hour, which tapes on Monday but doesn’t air until Tuesday evening—after other shows have covered anything that happened early in the week: “If it happens on a Tuesday, it’s kind of dead to us.” With every show doing the same Joe the Plumber, Henry Paulson and Bill C-10 jokes, these obscure subjects might eventually become as tired as the old generic jokes they replaced. But when that happens, late-night comedians can go right back to making jokes about John McCain’s age. And Jay Leno will be proved right once again.

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