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Late-night-free zone about to end for pols

Hillary, Rudy and Co., take note: Leno and brethren are returning to the air, just in time for the Iowa caucuses.

December 24, 2007|Jocelyn Noveck | Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Attention, presidential candidates: Not to disrupt your holiday plans, but if you have any cringe-inducing mistakes, insensitive jokes or outright hypocrisy yet to engage in, there's no time like the present.

Come early January, late-night comics return to the air again.

For seven weeks, Hollywood writers have been on strike, which means that for seven weeks candidates have been free of the often scorching satire heaped on them by the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel.

Now, all except Letterman have announced they'll return early next month, with or without their staffs. (Letterman's company is working on a separate deal with writers to return Jan. 2, coincidentally the night before the Iowa caucuses.)

Good news for viewers -- but bad news perhaps for those candidates whose gaffes or sticky revelations have been flying safely under the late-night radar for nearly two months.

"This has been a good time for them to screw up," says Andy Borowitz, comedian and author of the Borowitz Report, a satirical website. He wonders what the comics might have done when, say, Republican Mike Huckabee asked in a recent interview whether the Mormons believed that Jesus and the devil were brothers. (Huckabee later apologized to rival Mitt Romney, a Mormon.)

He also wonders how Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign might have been skewered when one of its officials made an ill-advised reference to drug use by rival Democrat Barack Obama. (The official resigned.)

And it's also fun to imagine what Letterman might have done when Oprah Winfrey blazed onto the political scene, giving Obama a huge boost by joining him on the campaign trail.

"Would we have been in for a reprise of the Oprah-Uma routine?" Borowitz asks, referring to an infamous joke from Letterman's stint as Oscar host. "Maybe the second time would have been a charm."

Which presidential hopefuls have benefited most from the writers strike? Probably the so-called top-tier candidates, who have less need for the free publicity and have escaped scrutiny in uncomfortable moments over the last two months.

For example, Rudy Giuliani, who's faced revelations recently about New York police security costs for his extramarital trysts with his now-wife, Judith Nathan, may have suffered much less fallout than he would have without the strike.

"That's weeks worth of hard-hitting ridicule right there," says Daniel Kurtzman, editor of the political humor page on About.com. "He escaped a wave of mockery that might have proved even more damaging to his campaign."

You might think it's impossible to quantify the effect of the writers strike on the campaign.

Actually, the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs tracks late-night jokes about the candidates and reports that Clinton stands to benefit most from the strike. Why? Because she's joked about almost as often as all the other Democrats combined.

The group found that from Jan. 1 through Oct. 10, Leno, Letterman, O'Brien, Stewart and Colbert joked about Clinton 186 times, versus 197 times for all the other Democrats together. They "focused heavily on her physical appearance, including her clothes (29 jokes), her alleged lack of emotional warmth (43 jokes) and her marital problems (21 jokes)," the group said in a report. It also found that John Edwards attracted frequent jokes about his appearance -- yup, mostly his hair.

The comedians found the Democrats (383 jokes) funnier than the Republicans (312 jokes), the group said. Only Clinton and Giuliani were among the top 10 most-joked-about figures in the country.

The center's president, Robert Lichter, says late-night shows are a mixed bag for the candidates. On the one hand, they can make them look bad and reduce support. On the other, especially for dark horses, "simply by focusing on them, the shows can increase their support -- as in, all comedy is good as long as they spell your name right."

Kurtzman, the political humorist, agrees. "Of course, there are the stinging jokes that can hurt. But the more innocent jokes can help a candidate by putting them on the pop-culture map. If you're a regular target, there's the sense that you've arrived."

And even for the front-runners, the talk shows can be a boon because they can always pop on to display a different side of themselves -- for instance, for Clinton to show she has a playful, softer side.

And some candidates thrive in the late-night setting. GOP Sen. John McCain has clearly enjoyed his visits to Stewart's show, as has Obama, who got a big laugh two years ago when, asked about the hype surrounding him, he told the host: "The only person more over-hyped than me is you!"

Although nothing can match the reach of the late-night shows, Kurtzman and others note the strike has given a boost to Web-based political satire. On his own site, he's taken to soliciting reader jokes.

The results, he says, "prove that comedy writing is not an easy thing to do!"

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