Latenight writers get last laughs

Leno, Letterman, Rock, 'SNL,' Maher, etc. crowd the field of political comedy

According to the Pew Research Center, almost half of Americans under 30 get their political news from latenight TV. The center also reported that 37% learned about the candidates from “Saturday Night Live” and “Politically Incorrect.”

That’s a pretty stunning stat, and a heavy burden for those of us in the latenight community, pitting, as it does, our responsibility to educate the electorate against our desire for cheap laughs, high ratings and to not get fired.

Now, I’m always suspicious of statistics. I think a properly worded poll question can get a respondent to say practically anything. We ran a poll on “Politically Incorrect” a few months ago in which the question was choose the most talented American actress of her generation and the only name on our ballot was Reese Witherspoon. Not surprisingly, she won.

It’s not easy writing political comedy. People are naturally resistant, poorly informed, and — in a two-party system — you’re bound to insult at least half of the audience half of the time. That’s why shows used to shy away from it. Now there are so many channels (like 12, I think) that latenight comics can take actual sides on actual issues. We know we can’t please all of the people all of the time. And that’s made latenight comedy better, smarter, and more pointed and various than it’s ever been before.

It’s about choices: If you like your comedy affable, bipartisan and broad, you can watch “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” If your tastes run to actual political satire, you can watch “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” If you have unresolved issues from toilet training, there’s Tom Green.

When people talk about a latenight war they’re missing the point. There will never be another Johnny Carson, and that’s too bad, because Carson was better than everyone, but there are more options now. It’s less like a war and more like a cultural revolution. Johnny left and let a hundred flowers bloom.

Turn on the TV in the middle of the night– there’s “Saturday Night Live” and “Mad TV,” Dennis Miller and Bill Maher, Charlie Rose and Jerry Springer. There’s something, as they say, for everyone — Chris Rock is dangerous and brilliant; Conan O’Brien is goofy and brilliant, and Craig Kilborn has a pretty mouth.

The monopoly on latenight has been broken up, and the winner is you, the entertainment consumer. There used to be one latenight show, then there were two, now there are 20. Who knows, in another 30 years, some network might even let a woman host one.

One of the great advantages of working at “Politically Incorrect” is that we follow “Nightline.” Our viewers are interested in news. Maher gets to do his monologue without the unpleasant Leno-like spectacle of setting up a joke by first explaining what a vice president is.

It’s not for everyone and, as a writer, I find that very liberating. Some viewers just don’t like hearing jokes about real issues. If people don’t like our show, they can always watch something else.

It turns out there are enough viewers for everyone. Leno, Letterman, Maher, Miller, Conan, Kilborn, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart … this year television viewers, and Emmy voters, finally have real opportunities to make real choices. And it’s a real race.

In 1983, there were five Emmy nominees in the category of outstanding writing in a variety music program, and all five were episodes of “SCTV.” The winner may surprise you. Reese Witherspoon.

– Chris Kelly is the head writer on ABC’s “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.”