Blurring the Lines Between Comedy and News

As if California's recall election wasn't already a farce, Jay Leno has invited all 135 gubernatorial candidates to appear on "The Tonight Show" on Sept. 22.

While the assorted smut kings and Hollywood has-beens vying for the governor's job may come straight out of a slapstick flick, the blurring of comedy, news and politics is serious business.

It was the late-night comedy king, after all -- not Tom Brokaw -- who scooped one of the biggest stories of the month: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s announcement that he'd join the race.

Then, California's embattled Gov. Gray Davis gave an exclusive interview not to Ted Koppel, but to comedian Bill Maher on HBO's "Real Time."

Whether it's candidates appearing on entertainment shows, Colin Quinn and friends debating gay marriage on Comedy Central’s "Tough Crowd" or Dennis Miller waxing political on Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes," the news establishment is being besieged by a comedic invasion.

Experts say the trend grew out of the compatible needs of news shows to attract younger viewers and politicians to appeal to younger voters.

“The people who go on these shows are using the comedians to reach a younger audience,” said media critic Eric Burns, who added that Schwarzenegger’s declaration of his candidacy on "The Tonight Show" will mark a historical moment when the lines between news and comedy grew even murkier.

“Instead of [candidates] just making the rounds of these shows, they’re starting the process on the shows," said Burns, who is host of "Fox News Watch."

Bill Maher said interview and debate shows with a comic twist like his also give public figures a chance to let their hair down.

“We give the politicians a chance to be seen in a more human light,” he said.

Politicians know being perceived as a "regular Joe" is key to neutralizing what could be termed The Bob Dole Factor. Experts speculated that if Dole had shown some of the dry humor he revealed on post-election talk shows, his presidential bid might have gone another way.

According to the Pew Research Center, 29 percent of Americans under 30 named late-night talkers like "The Daily Show" and "The Late Show With David Letterman" as their primary news source.

The fact that demographically desirable 18- to 34-year-olds like their news with laughs is not lost on news execs.

“It means that we understand the value of keeping and maintaining an audience,” said Kevin Magee, vice president of programming for Fox New Channel, when asked what the addition of Miller to "Hannity & Colmes" means for journalism.

But where do you draw the line? Burns said people of his baby-boomer generation were “appalled” by Schwarzenegger’s choice of venue, and said he feared that news outlets may begin to adopt the techniques of comedians.

“Comedians have seen they have more clout in the public-affairs arena,” Burns said. “They can expand their influence to be seen not just as comedians but as pundits."

Meanwhile, comedians say they're first and foremost entertainers. Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" has refused to categorize the program as anything but satire.

He recently told The Associated Press the show wasn't intended to be a “bold, critical voice.”

“It’s more like, ‘I think we need a fart joke at the end of this because we’re getting too strident,’" he said. "Ultimately, everyone here thinks of ourselves in terms of being a comedy show and that’s it."

Stewart may think the show is all in fun, but recently at the Television Critics awards, "The Daily Show" was in the running not just for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy, but for Outstanding Achievement in News and Information.

The faux current events program didn't win the news award, but was probably the only program ever to find itself competing simultaneously with “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “60 Minutes.”

Of course, the mixing of politics and comedy isn't new. But Maher concedes that the formats of current shows cross the line into quasi-journalism.

“What we do on the show is a debating society. We try to show two points of view,” he said, speaking like a true newsman.

Stewart, for his part, has poked fun at the notion that what he does has real political implications.

“Great leadership, as far as I know, doesn't require that you go toe-to-toe with pranksters, but for some reason, they feel that it adds to their electability," he said.

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