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Cheap Shots at a Steep Price?

In their version of political humor, late-night comics today are telling a generation of voters: Not caring is cool.

August 27, 2000|PAUL BROWNFIELD | Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer

Some of the best coverage of the Republican and Democratic national conventions came not from a news source, but from a fake one--Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." For two weeks, the cable series hosted by Jon Stewart dispatched its straight-faced correspondents onto the convention floors in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, and mocked leaders, delegates, the news media--and most of all the notion that something of social import was actually taking place. It was all a lot of fun.

And yet, one couldn't help feeling that "The Daily Show" wasn't slinging incisive political arrows at the political establishment so much as showing up at a gathering of adolescent math nerds and pointing out how all the kids had pens in their pockets and grease in their hair. The jokes had the tone of something "establishment" too--designed to make us feel part of an "in" crowd that assumes the worst of politicians but skips past the issues (what issues?), and in the process sends us deeper into our snooze of cynicism. Political comedy--at least in the grand tradition of a Swift or a Sahl--is supposed to be unsettling, not reassuring. But to a young electorate getting a kind of passive political education from entertainment programming in growing numbers, "The Daily Show" and others offer a safe and comforting message: Care even less than you already do.

To a large degree, the job of the late-night comedian is to affect no politics in particular while lampooning politics in general, a principle scrupulously adhered to by Jay Leno, David Letterman, Stewart and most of their late-night compatriots.

This is nothing new. When Kenneth Tynan profiled Johnny Carson for the New Yorker in 1978, he encountered various no-fly zones in the course of his interviews, among them "all subjects of political controversy."

"It is only fair to remember that he does not pretend to be a pundit, employed to express his own opinions," Tynan wrote of Carson. "Rather, he is a professional explorer of other people's egos."

Far from achieving a Carson-esque neutrality, however, the late-night gang these days do, through their unending stream of easy cynicism about the political system and the leaders running it, communicate a point of view. Disaffected and blase, they are the embodiment of today's apathetic voter.

"We know that some people watch us for the news, but there's not much we can do about that, unless we open up some sort of mental welfare agency," says comic Lewis Black, a regular contributor to "The Daily Show" who admits to being somewhat chagrined that the show, which Comedy Central says averaged about 575,000 viewers during the two convention weeks, passes as political news for some.

Created in 1996 to lampoon the fatuousness of broadcast news in general, "The Daily Show," for instance, had correspondent Mo Rocca question the Democrats' use of actor Pat Morita to sing the national anthem at their convention, noting that as the proprietor of Arnold's Diner on "Happy Days" he tolerated less-than-satisfactory working conditions in his kitchen. At an event that played like the Golden Globe Awards without the dresses, such a joke works. But the message of "The Daily Show," however on point, is less political than cynical: There's no need to watch what you're already not watching. In fact, it's hip not to watch.

It would be difficult to take comics to task for mocking politics, but there is a tonal difference in the mocking--an absence not so much of humor as of a lack of commitment to whatever the politics being lampooned.

"The earlier political comics were more opinionated and less indiscriminately and bitterly dismissive," says Todd Gitlin, professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University.

Gitlin is the author of "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage." The '60s were also halcyon years for political comedy, marked by performers like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory, who busted through prevailing taboos about race, sex and politics--outsiders attacking the establishment from several angles. Nobody can expect the same of a late-night comedian today. But why, at a time when comics have far more creative latitude than they did 30 years ago and information has never been more readily available, has the satirical political commentary grown so paradoxically safe?

"You cannot expect to be a fantastic political humorist and have a broad audience. Look how many times Mark Twain went broke," says Gregory, who turned racial stereotypes and prejudice into comedic weapons three decades ago, paving the way for Richard Pryor and Chris Rock. Now 67, the comic-turned-social activist lives in Massachusetts but still travels the country, giving as many as 300 speeches a year, he says. (You can read his opinions on everything from racial intolerance to genetically engineered food on his Web site,, thoughts that at times play like conspiracy theories without punch lines.)

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