TV Comedy Makes Politicians the Punchline


            Late-night comic Jay Leno recently said in his monologue that he wasn’t sure vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin knew what to do about the economy.  “Do you think she has any experience in this? She was asked today what to do in a bare market and she said you shoot it and then skin it.”

            Jay Leno’s punchline is an example of how American voters are increasingly getting their analysis of the presidential campaign not from newspaper editorials or Sunday morning talk shows but from television comedy talk shows.

            Comics such as Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and others open their shows with monologues that define the candidates and reinforce public perceptions of them.  According to the comics’ jokes, McCain is old and out of touch; Obama is young, academic, and elitist; Palin is a Bible- and gun-toting frontierswoman; and Biden is gaffe-prone.  By dwelling on their weaknesses, the comics force viewers to focus on the least appealing aspects of the candidates and this can affect their judgments on whom to support.

            It is not only the comics’ monologues that have a political impact.  Having the major candidates as guests on their shows gives those candidates an opportunity to display their more human side, as Bill Clinton did when he played the saxophone on Arsenio Hall’s show during his first presidential campaign in 1992.  The viewers feel that they are getting to know the candidate as a person, not just as a politician.  Politicians are now able to connect with a younger, less political audience than they could possibly hope to reach on the Sunday morning political talk shows.

            Playing an especially significant role in television comedy’s shaping of the campaign is the weekly political skit on Saturday Night Live.  SNL comedians impersonate the candidates in both appearance and mannerism, and voice the normally unspoken inner thoughts and motives of the candidates.  Amy Poehler gives voice to Hillary Clinton’s real ambition – personal not feminist.  When Sarah Palin (Tina Fey) says, “We can all agree it’s time for a woman to make it to the white house.” Clinton retorts, “I didn’t want a woman to be president; I wanted to be president, and I just happen to be a woman!”  This type of humour provides a deeper insight into what makes the candidates tick than can be expressed by conventional news coverage.

            Another SNL skit depicted Clinton and Obama being questioned by a panel of reporters who threw tough questions at Clinton and soft ones at Obama and even asked whether he needed a pillow to make him more comfortable.  This was a parody of the unequal treatment the candidates had received in a Democratic Party debate.  It spurred a more even-handed approach by the media at the following debate.

            Just as the internet has added a powerful new dimension to the U.S. election campaign, television comedy has also become an influential force, giving comics more clout than network news anchors and journalists.  During the U.S. financial crisis, Jay Leno complained when a couple of his jokes fell flat that “it’s tough to write good financial jokes” but political jokes present no such problem. The next president of the United States may very well be the candidate who can best roll with the punchlines.