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POLITICAL COMEDY


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Laughing at, but not with, our politicians

  • Article by: JOHN RASH
  • Star Tribune
  • August 10, 2012 - 9:16 PM

Every election brings political humor. But nowadays the laughs are mostly at, not with, politicians.

Friday, for instance, "The Campaign" hit the big screen. The Will Ferrell farce spares no part of our politics: Vacuous candidates and their victimized families. Creepy consultants. Attack ads. Debased debates, with complicit simplicity from voters and moderators. And even the Koch brothers are gleefully channeled as "the Motch brothers" by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow.

It's over the top. And yet oddly understated, at least compared to what's seen on the nightly news, or, maybe more important, "The Daily Show" or "The Colbert Report."

These satirical shows have significance that go beyond their ratings, said Sophia McClennen, Penn State University professor and author of "Colbert's America: Satire and Democracy."

"Satire never tells you what to think, if it's good," McClennen said. "It just exposes the ridiculous thought patterns that have been presented, and the behaviors you've come to take for granted and surely don't need to."

It also may be giving some in the press the ability -- in fact the responsibility -- to expose the absurdities. "The media follows Stewart and Colbert. Every single day there are a slew of articles that basically take their material from" them, McClennen said.

It's not just journalists taking comics' cues. Sometimes politicians do, too.

"Very often satirists will see something from a slightly different perspective," said Al Franken, the satirist-turned-senator. "Sometimes you really see past a lot of stuff surrounding an issue, that's obfuscating the real issue, or the absurdity of an issue or the contradictions that are there. Sometimes satire has a way of clearing things," Franken said.

Stewart and Colbert may be setting the news narrative, but more highly viewed late-night network hosts can still set -- or reflect -- voters' moods. And evidently voters wanted to laugh at the Republican race, according to data from the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

CMPA counted jokes from five network late-night shows (and "The Daily Show") for the first half of 2012. The top punch lines? Mitt Romney (the target of 607 jokes), Newt Gingrich (334) and Rick Santorum (205).

President Obama was fourth (174) -- low for an incumbent. But it repeats a 2008 pattern, when John McCain was the subject of 658 jokes, followed by Sarah Palin (566), George W. Bush (244) and Obama (243).

"There was lots of discussion if comics pulled in their claws due to the historical nature of his candidacy," said Dr. S. Robert Lichter, director of CMPA.

And part of it was the way Obama presented his presidency once elected.

"Obama is in a very unique position as an African-American," McClennen said. "He tried to come in with a very particular presentation of himself and his character. And being silly wasn't going to connect with that."

Franken made his own adjustments.

"When I got to the Senate it was very important right away to establish that I take this job seriously ... by being a workhorse," Franken said. "But on the other hand, my sense of humor is just part of who I am. Humor is a human trait. My colleagues respond to it because they like to laugh."

But unlike earlier eras, when a witty JFK or a droll Bob Dole humanized politics with humor, most pols are far more guarded today -- often due to technological transformations like cellphones, social media and the 24/7 news cycle. As a result, we may now have a lot of political humor, but fewer humorous politicians.

"Anytime you do a fairly large event, you have to assume someone is taping it on their phone," Franken said, adding that, "It's such an internalized thing now I don't think anyone says much in crowds above 10 people."

Lichter agrees.

"If a politician tells a joke and it's a clunker, everyone will be talking about it, everywhere. You don't just fall in front of your audience anymore, you fail in front of the whole world. The media culture encourages humorlessness because it's safer to be dull than witty in a way that might offend someone. ... Just as politicians in the television age had to train themselves to do sound bites, politicians in the Internet age have to train themselves to be dull."

So maybe the two humorless presidential candidates are just a product of our times, and satirists have become incumbents in their own right.

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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