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University of Iowa News Release

 

March 13, 2008

Professor: political punch lines are problematic

John Edwards' $400 haircut, Hillary's near-tears or George W. Bush's latest slip of the tongue make fine fodder for wisecracks by Leno, Letterman or Conan. But late-night comedians' constant shots at politicians do more damage than you might think, a University of Iowa professor asserts in his new book.

Traditional late-night comedians strive to be "equal opportunity offenders," meaning if they say something bad about one politician, they try to also say something bad about the others. These efforts to be even-handed in their insults reinforce the notion that all politicians are inherently awful, furthering Americans' deep-rooted cynicism toward government and the Democratic process, said Russell Peterson, author of "Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into a Joke," published by Rutgers University Press.

"The jokes play into the public perception of politics -- that every candidate in every party is, has been, and always will be the same: corrupt, inadequate or self-interested," said Peterson, a former stand-up comedian and political cartoonist who now works as a visiting assistant professor of American Studies in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

"They turn political engagement into a joke by implying that it's futile," Peterson said. "The take-home message is that politics is just a silly game, and if you care too much, you're silly, too. In fact, we Americans should take our politics seriously because it's extremely important who gets elected and what decisions they make."

Traditional late-night comedy also plays a part in defining politicians as characters, rather than focusing on notable differences in their records, ideas or qualifications, Peterson said.

"The media is criticized for concentrating on politicians' individual quirks, but traditional late-night humor as practiced by Leno and Letterman has encouraged that tendency," Peterson said. "The jokes paint Hillary Clinton's character as cold and calculating; George W. Bush's character as stupid, lazy and unable to say big words; Bill Clinton is defined as a full-time philanderer and so on. These portrayals leave out any conversation of substantive differences in their political beliefs, governing philosophies or competence to hold office."

Traditional late-night comedians dwell on superficial distinctions and strive to be equal opportunity offenders for two reasons, according to Peterson. Because the network comedy shows reach diverse audiences of 5 to 7 million viewers per night, hosts are afraid to alienate viewers by appearing to favor one candidate or party. And, the format of the shows -- a short monologue with a handful of quick-hitting jokes -- forces them to hit the punch line in a matter of seconds.

Peterson acknowledges an upside to political jokes: Humor is an effective method of communication, and political humor can inspire people to take interest in public affairs. But, he argues, the most meaningful political comedy occurs on cable shows like "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show."

With smaller, more loyal audiences, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart can worry less about neutrality. They have the freedom to draw conclusions about candidates by pointing out inconsistencies or exposing lies, and viewers find that willingness to make a judgment satisfying, Peterson said. Funnymen on cable also have the luxury of longer segments, which allow for more complex jokes.

"Leno has to take the short path to laughs and deliver bang-bang-bang, so he doesn't have time to do much more than scratch the surface with quips that focus on the character traits everybody already 'knows,'" Peterson said. "Colbert has a whole half-hour devoted to political satire, and he knows the audience is committed to staying with him through a more circuitous path. He's able to convey a lot more information and analysis in between the laughs."

Jokes aren't the only place politics show up in late-night comedy. The candidates themselves are making more appearances -- a move that's usually a mistake, Peterson said.

"They do it for exposure, and to show their human side. The problem is, their human side is already far too exposed and obsessed about by the media and the comedians -- practically all anybody knows is their human side," Peterson said. "Politically, they'd be better off to avoid being humanized and maintain more of a position of authority and dignity, assuming they could do so without appearing too aloof."

Politicians frequently accept invitations to appear on late-night comedy shows expecting an easy interview, only to be caught off guard by curveball questions.

"This happened to George W. Bush on 'Letterman,'" Peterson said. "Letterman grilled him about pollution and capital punishment, interviewing him with much more tenacity than a lot of serious reporters had. Bush was really unprepared for that. He thought 'It's a comedy show. There's nothing to it. I'll try to be a good sport and be funny.'"

And that's another thing, Peterson said: being funny isn't as easy as it looks.

"Politicians assume it's easy, and many have been proven wrong in a spectacular way, when they fall on their faces by trying to be funny and not pulling it off. John Kerry, for example, did not come across well in these types of appearances," Peterson said. "Comedy show appearances helped Mike Huckabee. He's really quite funny. Bill Clinton's appearance on 'The Arsenio Hall Show' in the early 1990s was very well received, and it helped him reach out to African-American and young viewers. But most politicians really aren't that funny."

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACT: Nicole Riehl, 319-384-0070, nicole-riehl@uiowa.edu