2004 ELECTIONS ARE RIPE FOR HUMOR
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- It may well be that comedy will determine the 2004 election. In a culture where popular entertainment reaches more people than all the learned political journals do in a lifetime, this is not an entirely facetious observation. The only question is whether the decisive "killer joke" will come from the mouth of Jay Leno, David Letterman. Jon Stewart or the Web pages of CNN.com.
Leno is famously the heir to Johnny Carson's seat as host of NBC's "Tonight Show." One year ago he became something of a political player by hosting Arnold Schwarzenegger as he announced his run for governor of California. In the year since, Leno has taken lots of flack for, in effect, facilitating the election of a Republican.
Leno has felt the complaints strongly enough that he recently felt the need to explain himself to a reporter: he doesn't support the conservatives and shouldn't be branded with that title, he said.
Whatever the reason, Leno has been dishing it out to President Bush of late. Musing in his adopted comedic style, Leno recently mentioned the fact that each presidential family seems to have one difficult brother. There was Billy Carter, and later there was Roger Clinton.
Who is that brother in the Bush family, Leno asks? "It's George W. Bush!" Leno repeats: "it's George W."
David Letterman, Leno's late-night competition on CBS, makes no bones about it. He has been joking about the president's lack of intelligence for several years now.
The power of political humor is that it creates images that are hard to refute. If Letterman refers to somebody as a "pinhead," what possible response can that person make? To complain is to come across as lacking in a sense of humor. And where would the victim lodge that complaint, anyway?
There is a little secret about standup comedy which is hardly a secret to those who try to do it, and not much of a secret to those who follow it at the comedy clubs. If you watch beginners try out their material at an "open mike night" you will come to realize that standup comedy is just about the hardest thing to do outside of singing opera or hitting a slider on the outside corner.
The gifted comedians combine thespian skills with voice control, timing and real wit. Even the best can take many years to hone their skills. One time Steve Martin was speaking in a live setting to a literary group. When he was asked by some frustrated wannabe how one can break into the world of film comedy, Martin responded in his patented Martin voice, "First, I became a famous comedian."
In other words, you have to have talent, skill and experience, not just envy of the successful.
One columnist back in the 1970s compared nightclub singers to standup comics: When a singer in a club is not connecting with the audience, he can do "Born Free" and walk off the stage to applause. The song may be about an oversized feline, but it sounds patriotic. For some reason, in that long ago era bad singers had figured this out, and were singing "as free as the wind blows" all over the place.
A comedian who is not getting laughs - "dying," as the argot puts it - is all alone up there, suffering the humiliations of the damned, and darned if he or she can do anything about it except slink off that stage and think about doing something useful for a living.
Or take up singing.
In the political scuffle, it takes somebody almost as good as Letterman to cross swords with Letterman on camera. Few have the skill. Los Angeles once had a mayor named Sam Yorty who had a penchant for traveling out of town instead of tending to the city. In those days it was less common than today, and Yorty took quite a rap in the local press for his wandering ways. One night Yorty was invited to appear on the "Tonight Show," starring Johnny Carson. Yorty tried to be funny by walking on stage holding a suitcase in each hand. After the laughter died down, Carson looked at Mayor Sam and deadpanned, "Do you want to put your suitcases down, or are you going somewhere else?"
Yorty took his beating in silence, as any sensible politician would.
There is humor and there is unintentional humor. That's where CNN.com comes in. This is from an article headlined "Aspiring doctor crowned Miss America," which is pretty good comedy by itself.
Citing hour-to-hour Nielsen ratings that traditionally ebb during the talent competition, pageant producers axed the often-amateurish singing, dancing or baton-twirling acts that had been a part of Miss America since 1928. [The pageant has been televised since 1954.]
Somehow that juxtaposition of histopathology classes with baton twirling and a promotional deal with Speedo set me to giggling.
Although sophomoric drug humor is one of the three staples of the not-so-talented comedian (the others are first, sex, and second, the opposite sex), you don't have to be an untalented hack struggling through cocaine jokes in a smoky nightclub to do drug humor. In a serious story about Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert's brazen attack on presidential candidate John Kerry ("Hastert: Al Qaeda wants a Kerry win"), CNN.com had this little silliness in the middle of its story:
Billionaire George Soros, a major backer of Democratic causes, asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate Hastert after the speaker suggested in a television interview that Soros got money from "drug groups."
There may be no group taking more money from drug groups than Congress, if we include in those groups Pfizer, Biogen, Eli Lilly and others. The image of Soros collecting money in a back alley for dealing dime bags is certainly an amusing one. It adds to the fun when we think about a professional politician complaining about somebody donating to election campaigns.
Finally, we come to something that may be unintentional but works in its own way - as seriously sick comedy.
In its home web page the other day, CNN.com ran a photo with this headline: "Al-Jazeera: U.S., UK hostages threatened." Immediately underneath that headline was a photo of three blindfolded hostages and a masked kidnapper. The story was the usual horror about kidnapped Americans and Brits being threatened with death.
The kicker: Immediately to the right of the photo story was a different story with this title: "Bush 'pleased with the progress' in Iraq."
It's hard to top that in the category of sick humor, whether intended or not; it made the point in one picture plus 12 words. If the Kerry campaign staff is looking for a way to tell its story this week, it might consider passing that picture around.
By the way, if the Kerry campaign had created this montage itself, it would be considered crude politics, perhaps even dirty politics, but it was done by CNN, so the Democrats can use it with plausible deniability. Such is the subtlety when it comes to humor and its part in the political process.
Deep thinkers complain about the media's demand for "sound bites" rather than careful, long-winded analysis. The critique is merited, but sound bites are what the media run. Comedy creates sound bites that are funny.
The funnier they are, the more they get repeated. The more they get repeated, the more they become absorbed into the mindset of the public.
Bush and Kerry can hand out long position papers quoting arcane statistics, but the election may be won or lost by whether the Republicans paint Kerry as the waffle cook, or some television comedian succeeds in convincing the nation that the president is a pinhead.
Serious media analysts often miss the effect that popular humor has on elections. Jokes work their way through our culture the way urban myths spread.
To find out what people are angry about or obsessed about, those wise ones pontificating on Sunday morning television might try going down to the local comedy club to learn about what gets laughs.