Politicians Still Funny, But Midterms Make Delivery Tougher

"A senator, a congressman and a governor walk into a bar ..."

"Take my state assemblyman ... please."

Politicians have always been fodder for good fun, but squeezing good laughs out of the midterm elections appears to be putting America's late-night comedians to the test... and that's not good news for President Bush.

On one night recently, late-night hosts opted for jokes at Bush's expense rather than any of the 450-plus congressmen and senators and their rivals up for election less than two months from now.

David Letterman addressed an anchorwoman's mishap during a Bush speech when she took a break and left her microphone on.

"What's the big deal? She went to the restroom during a George Bush speech? Oh, my God! Who hasn't done that?" Letterman panned.

Jay Leno picked up on a Hurricane Katrina theme, starting with a question that NBC anchor Brian Williams posed to the president.

"He asked him about his poll numbers, and President Bush said: 'The key for me is to keep expectations low.'

Leno's punchline: "I think you can accurately say: 'Mission Accomplished.' "

Conan O'Brien homed in on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad's request for a debate with Bush.

"President Bush turned down the debate, but did challenge the Iranian president to a game of 'Hungry Hungry Hippos.' "

OK, presidents are always good for a laugh. But there's an election coming up. Right? Isn't anything funny?

Maybe not. Unless a midterm candidate makes a really good political pratfall, it's tough to get the name recognition needed for a good laugh.

"In general, it lacks focus," said Daniel Amundson, research director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, of this year's midterm comedy.

He said that comedians tend to focus on the big names, and the big flops.

"What happens is they really kind of cherry-pick the worst races. ... They are interested in the races where someone truly scandalous is trying to run," he said.

But the easy targets, like convicted felon Randy "Duke" Cunningham and scandal-laden Tom DeLay are out of their respective races. Although Rep. William Jefferson — whose freezer stuffed with $90,000 in cash led to easy "cold cash" one-liners — is still running, the case isn't proving to be a bountiful source for new comic material.

"There hasn't been any one person to sort of become the target," Amundson said.

Between January and June, Bush was the top joke target of late-night comedians, becoming the butt of 685 jokes, of according to data compiled by Amundson's group. Of those actually seeking re-election, Sen. Hillary Clinton is the most-made-fun-of with 65 jokes at her expense in that time frame. DeLay was the subject of 31 punchlines, and Rep. Patrick Kennedy — who made headlines when he crashed his car on Capitol Hill under the influence of sleeping piills — was the subject of 18.

Ashley Widziszewski, 17, is one of the moderators of ColbertNation.com, a fan site dedicated to comedian Stephen Colbert's television show, "The Colbert Report." She said she has noticed how jokes about politicians are only playing well in some circles.

The freshman college student at Bowling Green University in Ohio said she spends about 10 hours a day on the Internet, either updating the site or checking in on new postings there, or flipping around other trendy sites like YouTube.com, MySpace.com and imdb.com — often looking for new Colbert-related news — all while keeping up with her new load of class work.

But when she moves away from her Internet-based cronies to her on-campus peer set, she finds that her love for political comedy is more unique than she knows when she tries to get laughs from Colbert's subject matter. What political junkies might think is standard fare is getting blank stares.

"Even, like, [Connecticut Senator] Joe Lieberman. ... I tried to tell my friends the jokes that Stephen makes on his show. They don't even know what's going on," Widziszewski said.

"I think a lot of people my age don't even watch the news," she said.

JibJab.com co-founder Gregg Spiridellis said that while he and his partner, brother Evan Spiridellis, found success in 2004 with their lampoon of the 2004 presidential race, this year's elections won't be a subject of one of their cartoons. "This Land!", the online of cartoon of the 2004 presidential candidates, had office workers across the country guffawing for weeks.

"The thing about online entertainment is you have to create something that people want to share," Spiridellis said. The test is "if it's good enough that people watching it want to send it to a friend."

A presidential race lends itself to broad appeal, not only to Americans, but around the world, Spiridellis said.

"It's the big race. I think with the midterms, it's a lot more localized. ... You don't have that mass audience."

That's not to say that there hasn't been plenty of funny stuff going on.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., was already facing a tough election with allegations that he had close ties with former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and an apparent slight of local firefighters at an airport. Then a Democratic operative caught Burns having trouble staying awake at a hearing, and that streamed across the Internet for a few days for some laughs at his expense.

William Jefferson, D-La., gave comics plenty of fodder when FBI agents found $90,000 in cash in his freezer earlier this year. President Bush's sneak-attack back rub on German Chancellor Angela Merkel was good for a few chuckles, too, as well as his off-the-cuff remarks in front of a microphone he thought was off.

"I think the one thing that's become clear in the world we live in is every single action, every single word, ... all politicians are under the microscope. And they do stupid things. Now we just have cameras and microphones on to catch them doing it," Spiridellis said.

One study of political news coverage by the Pew Center for the People and the Press showed that in 2004, 8 percent of Americans polled got their political news from comedy shows like The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, 21 percent got news from comedy shows, and 20 percent got their news from the Internet.

And a study released this summer from two East Carolina University political science professors suggests that "The Daily Show" might have a negative effect on views of the political system and political candidates.

"If young Americans learn about these candidates via Jon Stewart, it is possible that unfavorable perceptions of both parties’nominees could form. This would have the effect of lowering trust in national leaders.

"Moreover, it may increase the importance of having high name recognition in the primary season, because lesser-known candidates would enjoy less support. Ultimately, negative perceptions of candidates could have participation implications by keeping more youth from the polls," professors Jay Morris and Jody Baumgartner wrote after studying students' differing views after watching clips of "The Daily Show" and "The CBS Evening News" about the 2004 elections.

Bill Strauss, a writer and one of the founders of the Washington-based comedy troupe Capitol Steps said that presidents recently, and the candidates, historically have just been much easier to make fun of. So have the Kennedys.

"We try our best to try and have everybody enjoy the show," Strauss said, trying to give equal time to both parties. "But the president is the clear target."

One time-honored comedic tradition continues to play well to his group's audience: The Kennedys.

"I think they [the Kennedys] have established a grand tradition — It's in their DNA. Clearly, there are lines that you could cross where it would become way partisan and mean, but you can stop way short of that. It's part of being Ted Kennedy, that you're an object of satire," Strauss said.

Strauss said that he's seen the comedic climate change over the years when it comes to politics, and he credits both the politicians and changing attitudes about politics for a change to a more accepting one for political humor.

Strauss said Dan Quayle's verbal miscues and Bill Clinton's sexual escapades helped open the presidency to more jabs, and a more partisan atmosphere and the growth of the Internet as a major communication tool for younger generations has led up to the situation now, where political candidates are putting themselves on comedy shows as a viable way to speak to voters.

It started with the presidential candidates, but congressional candidates now willingly make regular appearances on TV comedy shows.

Colbert's show made headlines in July when he encouraged Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., to engage in a conversation that he prefaced by saying, "Let's say a few things that would really lose the election for you if you were contested." Wexler has a solid lock on the district and is not contested.

"I enjoy cocaine because —" Colbert prompted. After a little back and forth, and some coaching, Colbert gets what he wants to hear — and what the audience wants, judging by the laughter that followed.

"I enjoy cocaine because it's a fun thing to do," Wexler said. Colbert follows with a question about prostitutes, and Wexler adds this gem: "If you combine the two together, it's probably even more fun."

Strauss said that type of comedy would have been unfathomable 20 years ago. When George Bush, as governor, and Al Gore both appeared on Saturday Night Live in 2000, "that was something new."

"I couldn't have imagined Ronald Reagan doing that," he said.

But as November marches forward, comedians — and politicians — could learn a little from what Widziszewski says about her love for Colbert's show.

"It's a combination of the politics. Like, I like know about what's going on, but the way he delivers it with his satire and sarcasm —"

She pauses, and then explains she'd get bored from a regular evening news shows. Colbert's show, on the other hand, "it keeps me entertained."

And after she turns 18 in October she said she will "definitely" be voting.

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