Political comics look forward to substance over easy laughs

What did one political comic say to another about the George W. Bush presidency? “This may not be good for the country, but it’s time for the country to take one for us comedians.”

Making fun of politicians is never out of season, but these may be the halcyon days for political humorists, for whom the question of the moment is always the same: How can I mock, thee? Let me count the ways.

When it comes to Dubya, they say, the ways are bountiful, indeed.

“I think George W. is a gold mine,” says Lewis Black, who is a regular on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” on Comedy Central. “He may be the mother lode.”

“George Bush will do for political comedy what the microwave did for appliance stores — get them back in,” says Will Durst, host of PBS’ “Livelyhood.”

Some may think President Clinton was no less a gold mine, but the pros take a different view. The ex-chief executive’s physical appetites unleashed such a flood of sex and food jokes that political humor was swept aside by a brand of comedy that passed for political but wasn’t. Consequently, for most of the past eight years, bona fide political comics felt lost in a sea of pretenders, clearly leaving a residue of resentment.

“Any road comic could put together a penis joke and say they were topical,” says Steve Marmel, who, like Black, appeared on “The Daily Show’s” “Indecision 2000″ segments.

“Bush is better for me because every two-bit hack in America became a political comic,” adds Durst. “At least he will be above the belt.”

Moreover, since the Monica Lewinsky affair and subsequent impeachment proceedings so dominated Clinton’s second term, some political comics felt there was little else of substance to target.

“Everybody says Clinton was easy, but in the last couple of years there really wasn’t that much to deal with,” says Black.

Unlike Clinton, Bush enters the Oval Office already well roasted by political comics who have jumped on his obvious vulnerabilities.

“You can’t do sex jokes with Bush, but it’s not like you can’t do every Quayle joke and swap names,” says Marmel. “You can do the drunken Kennedy jokes and every frat boy joke, too.”

Most political comics don’t want to settle for that kind of humor, or at least not rely on it too much.

“At a certain point these things become too easy so they aren’t funny anymore,” says “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Al Franken, who was a frequent invitee to the Clinton White House. “What I’ve discovered is you really don’t know about a president until he’s been there awhile. Right now we’re seeing he hasn’t called a press conference yet. This may have something to do with a lack of confidence.”

Franken expects George W. will be as much a product of handlers as President Reagan was, with the difference being “Bush doesn’t have Reagan’s talent for communicating.”

“I try to make the leap to figure out what might really be going on,” says satirist Harry Shearer, host of KCRW’s radio program “Le Show.” “It’s not just Bush but the medium in which he swims — the media — that’s a big part of the joke.”

Impressionist Jim Morris is also wary of having a one-joke administration, and is working on material that digs deeper.

“As far as my Bush impression goes, it’s about at that point that it’s second nature to take questions from the audience and answer in character,” says Morris. “I’ll get a laugh from the impression if it’s right on and from the mangling of the language, but then I hope to get laughs from the hidden meaning behind how he’s using words.”

For example, Bush says he wants to use tax incentives to encourage charitable groups to do more for the poor and disadvantaged. Morris, as Bush, puts it this way: “I really believe in compassionate conservatism, especially faith-based executions.

“He meant to say institutions,” explains Morris. “He slipped. Why? That’s where the subtleties are. Subtlety will work despite the jokes on the late-night monologues.”

Other Bush policies skewered include his support for school vouchers, which parents could use to pay for their kids’ tuition.

“I find a lot of his proposals clinically insane, like vouchers,” says Black. “Basically, he wants to provide money for kids in this country to get a uniform.”

Another early target in Bush’s term has been his Cabinet appointments, especially the selection of John Ashcroft for attorney general.

“Ashcroft lost his incumbent Senate seat to a dead guy,” says Durst. “It could turn out that ( Vice President Dick) Cheney has a heart attack and Ashcroft will think he’s making fun of him.”

Or: “The nicest thing you can say about Ashcroft and race relations is that he doesn’t own slaves,” Black says.

Even a comic from the right of the political spectrum has a beef with Bush, though it pales beside the inspiration he gets from Clinton.

“I haven’t really started on Bush yet because I’m still having a good time with Clinton and Gore,” says Chicago comic Tim Slagle. “But this whole inheritance thing gets me. That his dad was president and his brother is governor in the state on which the election hinged. That kind of thing makes it seem like we’ve entered an age of royalty, which I’ve always opposed.”

Now that the temptation to joke about Clinton’s weaknesses is gone, political humorists are looking forward to getting back to the meat and potatoes of their trade.

“The comic who isn’t political isn’t going to do five minutes of material on drilling in Alaska,” says Marmel. “That’s going to bring a shift toward people who do it because they have a passion for it. They’ll be the ones to comment.”

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