Extremes of news coverage a bigger target than politicians
For those who thought the bull market in political humor would end with the Bush presidency, think again. The Obama era is proving to be just as lucrative — in large part because the media covering politics remains mockworthy.
“If we were to step back and look at the (political humor) landscape, we would be overwhelmed at what a rich period we’re in,” says Robert Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse U.
Several things make this a golden era, he adds, starting with the number of comedians hosting talkshows — a huge jump from the days when Johnny Carson ruled latenight — and also because the well of news from which comics pull their material is deeper than ever.
“All that Carson could count on people knowing was what was covered during 22 minutes of the evening news,” Thompson says. “But now with the 24-hour news cycle, the Internet and all the rest, there’s so much more you can assume that people have been following — more scandals and more details.”
Among the issues, there has been plenty to choose from for each monologue and comedy bit: the debates over healthcare reform, bank and auto company bailouts and the deficit; ACORN, Tea Party protests, President Obama’s birth certificate.
“I can’t remember a single day when we’ve felt like we’ve been short on material,” says Steve Bodow, the supervising producer and head writer on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”
If there’s a theme that runs through the most popular targets, it’s hypocrisy.
“We spend a lot of time poking at it wherever we find it,” says Tom Purcell, exec producer of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” “The co-founder of the Family Research Council hiring a male escort is one example. For him to even try to defend that is just ridiculous to us.
“Sometimes it isn’t left or right,” he adds, “it’s just a person who thinks he’s better than everyone else, or a person who thinks he can get away with something we all know is against the rules.”
And when it comes to issues that are left vs. right, it’s the laugh that always wins out — even for Colbert’s character as a right-wing pundit.
“This isn’t ‘The Daily Worker’ over here,” Purcell says. “Our agenda is this: We think something is funny, and we hope you do too.”
The “Colbert” writers — along with those from other latenight shows — have found plenty to laugh at when it comes to television news coverage and commentary. Stewart in the past year has famously taken on CNBC’s Jim Kramer, CNN’s Rick Sanchez and several of the headliners at both MSNBC and Fox News Channel.
“The country is more and more polarized politically, and the media plays into that and also whips it up,” Bodow says. “Fox’s numbers are huge, and I think they are finding themselves rewarded for tuning up the crazy.”
On two occasions in the past several months, Stewart channeled Fox’s Glenn Beck and his propensity for mapping out vast conspiracies, the first coming in November after Beck was hospitalized for appendicitis.
“This man, this good, hard-working television personality is under siege, not from without, but from within,” Stewart said during the sketch. “His own organs have turned against him — or should I say have been turned against him. The naysayers will say, ‘Oh, Jon, organs don’t have thoughts, they can’t hatch a plan and get together and execute that plan.’ Really? Really? They can’t organize?”
One person who has largely avoided the latenight barbs — at least compared with his predecessors — is Obama himself. But that has more to do with personalities than anything else, says Molly McNearney, one of the co-head writers on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”
“Bill Clinton couldn’t keep his pants on, George Bush couldn’t keep his mouth closed and Obama is doing neither of those things,” she says.
“Kimmel,” however, has gotten a lot of mileage out of the reaction to Obama and his policies.
“We’re having more fun poking fun at the people who are demanding to see his birth certificate and the Tea Partiers,” McNearney says.
“What people are familiar with and what’s in the news becomes our material.”
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