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Getting Votes on Comedy Circuit

Television * Gore and Bush have become late-night regulars. Is it politics or entertainment?

November 04, 2000|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

About two minutes of Gov. George W. Bush's appearance on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" were edited out of the broadcast Monday, apparently because they weren't funny or entertaining enough.

Meanwhile, both Bush and Vice President Al Gore will appear on a special "Presidential Bash 2000" edition of "Saturday Night Live" airing on NBC Sunday night at 9. That appearance, to introduce a clip package of "SNL" political humor, culminates a presidential campaign that has seen the candidates use late-night comedy shows to unprecedented lengths--so much so that it's hard to keep track of what counts as a campaign appearance and what counts as entertainment.

The Bush visit to "The Tonight Show" this week was in many ways typical of such once-edgy stops, stops now carefully geared to humanize the candidate as someone who can make fun of himself. In Bush's case, of course, this means emphasizing the governor's tendency toward verbal gaffes. Thus, the show began with Bush and Leno in a pre-planned sketch during which the governor pronounced the word "flammable" as "flammamababable."

Later, however, Leno and Bush introduced a video of outtakes from a campaign commercial featuring the governor and his wife, Laura. The video and some portion of the interview were excised from the broadcast because "Tonight Show" producers felt the segment fell flat, several sources said.

To be sure, celebrity appearances on talk shows are sometimes edited to show both guest and host in the best light. But in this case, the celebrity was a candidate running for president, not an actor selling a movie. Officially, "The Tonight Show" said the minutes were cut because the broadcast ran long.

"They want to put on a good show. We go on so people can see a different side of the governor," said Mindy Tucker, a Bush campaign spokeswoman, adding that the move was "The Tonight Show's" decision. (A "Tonight Show" spokesperson said that only 10 seconds were cut from Gore's appearance the following night.)

The blurring of entertainment and politics was further seen when Bush appeared for the second time on "The Late Show With David Letterman" a week earlier. The governor stepped into what seemed a hornet's nest, faced with a series of tough-minded questions from Letterman about Bosnia, the death penalty and air pollution in Houston.

"The reaction from the press was, 'Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, [Letterman] went after him,' " said Tucker. "But all my friends called and said what a great job [Bush] did. For us it was a win-win. He joked but also talked substantively."

Maria Pope, "Late Show" executive producer, said that the Bush people were told the interview could be wide-ranging and that "Dave [has] made it a policy that we will not edit the . . . interview portions of their appearance. They are what they are."

Of course, that doesn't mean the show won't fix the comedy--as "The Late Show" did when Bush flubbed his reading of a Top 10 list on "The Late Show With David Letterman" (he skipped over No. 6).

On "Saturday Night Live," Bush and Gore appear briefly at the outset of the show. Bush mispronounces the word ambivalent (that took a few takes, because Bush kept saying the word correctly), and also calls some of the show's content "offensible." Gore then says he was one of the first to find "SNL" offensive.

*

To Jake Tapper, political columnist for the online magazine Salon.com, the Bush campaign has been wise to co-opt its candidate's image as a flubber of the English language and a comedian's best friend. Instead of focusing on Bush's policies, the attention has been drawn to Bush's cute mistakes--what Tapper refers to as the "dope chic" factor.

"It's the old bait-and-switch. I can tell you there has definitely been a shift," says Tapper, referring to the Bush camp's attitude toward media coverage of the governor's malapropisms. "It certainly doesn't seem to have hurt him in a way that a full-blown exploration of how hard he fought the patients' bill of rights might hurt him."

Sunday's appearance by both candidates on "SNL" puts a fitting finale on a season of presidential participation in such humor. Of course, there was a certain amount of vetting of the comedy by both candidates, according to a behind-the-scenes account of the joint appearance in the New York Observer. The Bush camp, the paper reports, felt Gore got too many laugh lines, while the Gore camp argued that part of the script had their candidate taking self-deprecation too far. The segment ends with Gore and Bush declining to give the show's trademark line, "Live from New York . . . it's 'Saturday Night.' " To do so, Gore says, would be unpresidential.

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