Election 2002: The Joke's on U.S.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, but it can also make for strange comedy.

In the whirlwind weeks leading to the 2002 elections -- with events like one senator's death in a plane crash, another's decision not to run for reelection amidst corruption allegations, the war on terror and a possible invasion of Iraq -- comedians who thrive on political humor have a potential goldmine. Or minefield.

"In polls in Florida, Jeb Bush is leading Democrat challenger Bill McBride by six points," Tonight Show host Jay Leno said. "However, since this is Florida, there is a 2,000-point margin of error."

Or take the race in New Jersey where Sen. Robert Torricelli dropped out at the last moment.

"Torricelli, a powerful fund-raiser who helped raise more than $100 million for the Democratic Party, took inappropriate gifts from a businessman, including an $8,000 gold Rolex watch," The Daily Show's Jon Stewart said during a recent monologue. "To recap, raising $100 million in contributions from gigantic corporations: ethical. Taking a watch: unethical. That's the Senate Ethics Committee: an oxymoron since 1974."

But though there's been no dearth of political pickles to pick from, the jabs have been relatively muted compared to, say, the time when "Monica Lewinsky" could be used as an adjective.

"We have had a hard time largely because what we do is based largely on the public appetite for the news, and it doesn't really seem like these elections have captured the hearts and minds of most Americans," Daily Show head writer Ben Karlin said. "It makes it difficult to turn around and parody [the news coverage], because there's nothing to parody."

Karlin was speaking from Washington, D.C., where the Comedy Channel program has relocated to "cover" the elections, which are stubbornly local in nature.

"You really can't look at many specific races and say everyone's talking about Liddy Dole vs. Erskine Bowles," Karlin said.

Long Beach City College political science professor Paul Savoie agreed local and state elections don't tickle the funny bones of a national audience. But he said comedians have been avoiding controversy.

"America is on a wartime footing right now," he said. "The line folks don't want to cross is going too far in poking fun at the administration because there are still a lot of folks in the public who are saying there are things you don't criticize in times of a national crisis."

Add to that the sacking of comedian Bill Maher, whose program ABC cancelled after his allegedly anti-American comments.

"There's a ceiling of caution out there because they don't want to suffer the same fate as Politically Incorrect and Bill Maher," Savoie said. "I think that sent a not-so-subtle message to all those folks that they need to be careful."

In fact, Karlin said, there are topics The Daily Show has stayed away from, but not for reasons of patriotism or pressure. The death of Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, for example, was an obvious downer.

"We didn't not make jokes because it's verboten, but because it's just not funny," he said. "The tragic death of a senator and his family is one of those things that can be hard to dig out of. But Ventura picking an average guy to replace him is good."

At the Improvisational Comedy Club in Washington, D.C., owner John Xereas said politics is something his audiences want to get away from. But the political humorists who do appear pull no punches, he said.

"I don't think there's much they wouldn't jump on," he said. "I mean, people were telling sniper jokes here."

Karlin said there are basic explanations for why jokes about, say Torricelli or Bush's malapropisms seem to have died out. Bush's verbal gaffes are old news, and Torricelli's scandal didn't get as many laughs as it should have.

"It's one of the weird times where a Democrat has screwed up and no one seems to know what he did," Karlin said.

Savoie said that midterm elections political comedy might have to wait until 2006 to really take off.

"People are already talking about a California gubernatorial race between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rob Reiner," he said. "Think what the late-night people could do with the Terminator vs. the Meathead."