Monday, March 08, 2004

'the relationship between comedy and politics has never been more entangled'

Anyone who knows me - especially from my college days where I nearly - and this is no joke - minored in comedy - knows that this is one of my favorite areas of academic study. So here's an NYT article on my two of my three passions - in it's entirety (so you needn't register if you haven't yet):

March 8, 2004
Strategy and Spin Are Cool, but Voters Like to Laugh

ASPEN, Colo., March 7 — These days wherever politics goes, comedy follows. Or maybe, as illustrated at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, which concluded here on Sunday, it's the other way around. Just about everywhere you turned, politics weaseled its way into the jokes.

Playing M.C. at a late-night stand-up session, Drew Carey talked about undergoing surgery. He had an angioplasty and received a stent, he said, the same operation that Vice President Cheney had, "except they left in the heart."

Members of the editorial staff of The Onion, the satirical newspaper, discussed a variety of their invented headlines, like "Israelis, Palestinians Agree to Share Headline" and "U.S. to Form Own U.N."

And even the playwright August Wilson, who was on hand to receive the Freedom of Speech Award, began an autobiographical monologue with a tart, politically resonant wisecrack: "My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century," said Mr. Wilson, who is of course black, "and for the first 244 years they didn't have any trouble finding a job."

It may be natural that political humor peaks in a presidential election year, but it is also true that the relationship between comedy and politics has never been more entangled. More than three decades ago President Richard M. Nixon appeared on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" to intone the mantra, "Sock it to me" and make self-deprecating fun of his dour, unhip image. Campaigning in 1992 Bill Clinton, then a governor, sought to underscore his connection with a younger generation — and divert attention from attacks on his character — by playing the saxophone on "The Arsenio Hall Show."

But by now comedy has become such a standard tool for politicians that candidates for high office like Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Edwards have announced their intentions to television hosts like Jay Leno and Jon Stewart.

"You know, we're a fake show," Mr. Stewart, the host of "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central, responded to Mr. Edwards's disclosure that he was running for president. "So this may not count."

The point is that if comedy has long been a critical weapon used by commentators against politicians it is now also a standard political tool used by politicians to defuse criticism and to court voters.

To be at the Aspen festival was to be acutely aware of this chicken-egg relationship, the Möbius-strip quality of the continuum shared by comedy and politics.

"The proof of that is that we're here," said John Podesta, the president of a liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress, and the former chief of staff for President Clinton, referring to himself and Mike Murphy, a Republican political consultant who was the senior strategist for Mr. Schwarzenegger's successful gubernatorial campaign in California.

"Pop culture has become so important in politics that those of us who are out running political campaigns would much rather put the candidate there," Mr. Murphy said, meaning on an entertainment or comedy show, "where there's quick, wide publicity and acceptance, than sit him in a Tim Russert hot seat and have to do, you know, trigonometry on Sunday mornings."

Mr. Podesta and Mr. Murphy were central figures in a raucous Saturday panel discussion that was called "Who's Funnier — the Left or the Right?" but mostly went to prove that it is difficult if not impossible to discern where politics ends and comedy begins. As Stephen Colbert, a correspondent on "The Daily Show," remarked when the panel was over: "The challenge for a comedian is to go out and make jokes that can't be co-opted by politicians. Those are the golden nuggets we look for."

The panel, which a little embarrassingly consisted entirely of white men, conducted itself in language that was often equally politically incorrect. (The moderator was a woman, Campbell Brown of NBC's "Today," weekend edition.) The discussion began with a general agreement: the title question was ambiguous and unanswerable. There are witty people on both sides of the aisle, the panelists acknowledged, and if the Republicans are a more mockable target than the Democrats at the moment, that is only because they are the party in power.

"You always want to attack people that are higher than you — or think they're higher than you," said Mr. Carey, whose sympathies (despite his joke about the vice president) are generally conservative. And the liberal cartoonist Garry Trudeau concurred.

"Satire has always been this kind of disorganized resistance to established power," he said. "If you go back a few hundred years the court jester pulled the king's beard. He didn't go out and randomly criticize the serfs."

The panelists were also relishing the election to come, especially with its brand new target.

"What exactly is funny about John Kerry?" Ms. Brown asked, and Matthew Cooper, the White House correspondent for Time magazine, replied: "The guy is a target-rich environment for comics. He's so stiff you sort of picture him sitting at home in a powdered wig watching C-Span2. He told one of my colleagues at Time that he thought of himself as a rebel. I mean, John Kerry being rebellious is having red wine with fish."

Mr. Trudeau made the distinction between satirists, who operate with a distinct point of view, and humorists, people like the late-night network hosts who play to all sides. For those in his position, he said, President Bush "is considered the gold standard, and we would be crushed if he lost."

Mr. Podesta made the point that for a politician capable of wit, it can be a brilliant tool. The news about Monica Lewinsky and its aftermath, he said, robbed President Clinton of one of his most potent political weapons.

"You know, you couldn't go from his grand jury testimony on to Leno and start joking around about it," he said. "And so there was a period, probably for a year, in which I think President Clinton had a harder time using humor, which he was so good at during other parts of his tenure."

The most representative exchanges during the discussion were those that fractured the sought-after spirit of bipartisanship. It became increasingly difficult for the panelists to keep to the subject of comedy and politics. Instead their instincts took over and the conversation devolved into an often humorous, often abrasive political argument.

"The 2000 election was a remarkably funny event," said Greg Proops, a comic best known for his appearances on "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" "I was surprised that after that election Haiti didn't invade us to install a democracy."

Mr. Proops broke into hysterical, derisive laughter at many of the comments by Phil Hendrie, the syndicated radio broadcaster, who said he considered himself a liberal even though he supported the war in Iraq and did not favor gun control.

The two men seemed visibly irritated by each other, but they were not the only ones whose dander rose. Exchanges like the following were common:

Mr. Carey, referring to the president's willingness to recognize his penchant for misspeaking, began: "What's great about what Bush does is that he makes fun of his own problem, and right away you forgive him for it."

Mr. Proops: "No, right away you forgive him for it. I think you'll find he's not quite as self-effacing and a man of the people as some people might imagine."

Mr. Colbert: "I'm still waiting for Bush to make a self-effacing joke about executing the retarded."

Mr. Carey: "Well, it's not like they plucked a retarded guy off the street and said, `We're going to shoot you.' "

Mr. Colbert: "Oh, it's not like they retarded him. It just happened."

Mr. Carey: "Well, when the retarded guy kills somebody in your family, we'll see if you change your tune."

And suddenly, politics didn't seem so funny after all.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

Strategy and Spin Are Cool, but Voters Like to Laugh

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