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The Joke's on Bill : Comedians Were Sorry to See Bush Go but Find New Targets in the White House

April 20, 1993|CHUCK CRISAFULLI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

We had Ronnie. We had Dan Quayle. We had George Bush throwing up in Japan. You couldn't ask for anything better. Quayle did something for comics every week. The country went to hell, but it was funny.

Stand-up comic John Henton, reminiscing about the good old days

As the first 100 days of the Clinton Administration come to a close, comics who wring laughs from the foibles of the Beltway are finally letting go of the last 12 years and sounding eager to tackle the new material at hand.

By the end of the Bush years, familiarity had bred cartoons, and political humor of any real bite and substance became scarce. The country's jokesters are relishing the idea of taking on a brand-new power elite.

Richard Belzer, who delivers some of the sharpest political diatribes in comedy, is already losing sleep over the current White House tenants.

"Remember how we used to worry that if something happened to George Bush, Dan Quayle would become President? Now we have to worry that if something happens to Hillary, Bill Clinton will become President. That's what keeps me awake at night."

Comic and self-professed love goddess Judy Tenuta is less troubled.

"It's nice that Bill's let Hillary be President. He smiles and she's cracking the whip. She's the dominatrix. I don't think that's a bad thing."

"Clinton promised he'd hit the ground running," says political comic Will Durst. "We just didn't know it would be away from his campaign promises."

Durst followed the events of the campaign trail intently, and admits that by the time of the election, many of his peers had reached a moment of comic doubt. "We were all worried about new material," he says. "Until the Inauguration. The transition between the election and the ball was tough, but then stuff just started happening."

Stand-up veteran Mike MacDonald says his worries were also quickly put to rest. "I saw Clinton's brother on (David) Letterman. The jokes almost write themselves. It almost looks planned--'Hey, Gore's not coming through for us. We need a new Quayle: Call Roger.' There's plenty of new material."

"It's a gold mine," says Jay Leno. "We've hit the mother lode."

On "The Tonight Show," Leno delivers some of the country's most widely heard political jokes. He had no shortage of material with Reagan-Bush-Quayle. Now that there's a Democrat in the White House, he's not worried about any dearth of targets.

"Things like 'potato with an e' were great gifts for comics, but I think it's important to stay on the attack no matter who the President is. It's my job to make fun of the people in power. Some of the audience might be confused at first, because they think they know what your politics are--'Hey, I thought you were making fun of those other guys!' But I'm a comedian rather than a political comedian. It's important to be funny first, and let whatever message is in the humor speak for itself."

Leno says that despite the much discussed mood of hope in the country, his audiences still seem ready to laugh at their leaders' expense. "If I'm getting a laugh from the 500 people in the studio, I can be pretty sure that people at home are laughing. We worried the other night about a joke that mentioned health-care reforms, but it got a huge laugh. People are tuned in to this stuff and they're ready for funny material."

Not everyone pays as much attention to the Oval Office. George Carlin might be thought of as the elder statesman of anti-Establishment comics, but he says that the changes in the White House do not directly influence his work.

"I hardly do anything on topical political subjects. I like the longer-term political and social issues that will always be present, and that the revolving cast of characters in Washington doesn't have any power to change. We're just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. That's a great description of what passes for meaningful change in our country. It's a rigged society, and the rigging continues. I view the whole thing rather hopelessly, although it's a positive hopelessness."

Comedians who do work topically may be required to retarget their barbs, but there are some humorists on the scene who need to completely reinvent themselves.

Impressionist Jim Morris has become skilled at performing that feat. He achieved national stature during the early 1980s with his wicked incarnation of Ronald Reagan, and successfully shifted to an equally devastating George Bush after the 1988 election. Now he's in the middle of his "homework time," cataloguing the new President's mannerisms and political positions and looking for comedic flash points.

"I compare what I have now to what I had to work with the last time," he explains. "There's a big difference in that Clinton can speak in complete sentences and make sense. It makes it more difficult for me, because my job is to exaggerate quirks and eccentricities, and Clinton is very con-trolled. He's already been through so many ups and downs and he still looks so damn comfortable.

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