Joke's on them
Joke's on them
Humour is the new weapon in the US presidential contest, writes Matthew
Wednesday March 31, 2004
A new front in the bitter presidential election battle opens today with
the launch of Air America, the radio network that promises a liberal
alternative to the rightwing talk show hosts who dominate the daytime
Al Franken, the doyen of political satire on the left, will be going
directly up against the broadcasting colossus Rush Limbaugh. Initially,
it will not be a contest at all, as the new network will be heard only
in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco, while Limbaugh's
long-established sarcastic tirades against the "liberal elite" are
disseminated from coast to coast.
The buzz surrounding Air America's launch - together with the heavy
coverage devoted to the shock-jock Howard Stern's recent conversion to
the anti-Bush cause - is a clear sign that the entire political
establishment is more aware than ever of the role that satire and comedy
will play in this year's race for the White House.
In these early days of the campaign, the teams behind both candidates
are seeking to define their man in the best possible light and do the
reverse to their opponent.
"Humour is politics by other means," says Mark Katz, a New York-based
political writer who was on the White House staff throughout the Clinton
years. He runs a "creative thinktank" called the Sound Bite Institute,
describing himself as its resident scholar. He wrote gags for Clinton
and Gore that helped to shape their image and defend them in times of
"It's a great weapon, or device, to increase a speaker's likeability,"
Katz says. "Without strong ideology, people are more inclined to vote
for the person they like. When someone uses an honest brand of humour,
you connect with them.
"Humour does its best work when it's stating the sub-text, whether it be
self-deprecating, or stating an essential truth ... Humour flatters,
where spin insults. A politician is saying: I think you're smart enough
to connect the dots."
Katz points to the presidential joke at the annual Radio and Television
Correspondents' Association dinner last week that led within hours to
Democrat-led news stories about Iraq casualties and their families,
forcing the Republicans on to the defensive.
Taking a leaf out of the self-deprecation handbook, President Bush
presented a spoof slideshow of White House photos including one of
himself looking under a piece of furniture in the Oval Office. "Those
weapons of mass destruction got to be here somewhere," he said in his
narration. Just for emphasis, he repeated the gag again with another
"They tried to redefine a joke that is on us," says Katz. "Humour is a
calculated risk ... It was a terrible lapse in judgment to try to
redefine weapons of mass destruction as a self-deprecating topic. I
think seven or eight people died in Iraq last week."
"But I thought the Kerry campaign made a mistake trying to slap Bush for
that joke. They have yet to demonstrate their candidate's sense of
humour, so to be school ma'amish about it really underscored that."
The man who possibly wrote the joke in the first place - although he was
not prepared to confirm it when he spoke to me from his office in
Virginia - is Landon Parvin, an eminent comedic speechwriter who has
given his services to Republican administrations since Ronald Reagan. He
was keen to point out that he has also written lines for a handful of
Democrats, "but only if I like them".
He was certainly at the dinner in question and sees the Kerry campaign's
reaction to it as indicative of the bitterness that is already
enveloping the contest. At this and three other annual dinners for
Washington insiders, there used to be an understanding that everyone
would get the joke and not turn partisan, he says.
"The first response in the room was that the audience laughed and it was
an effective use of comedy at that moment ... At the Gridiron dinner
this year, Hillary Clinton gave the harshest speech I have ever heard,
in terms of heavy-handedness ... Press dinners were designed to spread
bipartisanship and comity. I do not feel that now."
With the utter collapse of the bipartisan ethos in this campaign, Mr
Parvin also points to the continued growth of an aggressive satirical
culture aimed at young television audiences that does not, in his view,
sit easily with American political tradition.
Jon Stewart's Daily Show on the Comedy Central network and the rise this
year of Bill Maher's Real Time on HBO provide a generation who does not
automatically treat politicians with respect with an alternative to the
more staid daily current affairs output on the big networks.
"In spite of the bitterness, I think people want to like their
politicians," says Parvin. "Younger humour is a little more biting.
America's sense of humour could be getting more satirical but
politicians are vulnerable characters."
A culture of irreverent - but insightful - political interviewing using
the kind of withering sarcasm that is the norm for Paxman or Humphrys in
Britain is only seeping into American discourse through the comedy shows.
Earlier this month, the leftwing comedian-turned interviewer Bill Maher
got stuck into the health secretary, Tommy Thompson, in a way that few
senior politicians would tolerate. Here is part of the transcript:
MAHER: "Okay. Now, we have the - we have the Canadian prime minister -
former Canadian prime minister - on this show here. I must say, another
area where people think corporate influence over our health takes
precedence is the pharmaceutical industry. [applause] And here in
America - wait a second - here in America, millions of Americans would
like to buy prescription drugs from Canada because they are cheaper. But
our government says to Americans: 'No, we're protecting you because,
Canadian drugs, we're not sure if they're safe.'
"Now, I've been to Canada. It's not Haiti. [laughter] They're not
brewing up Zoloft in a pot. [laughter] Isn't that a little fib to
protect the pharmaceutical industry?"
THOMPSON: "No, it isn't, Bill. The law is this: in order to import drugs
from any country, and especially Canada, I have to certify that all
those drugs are safe. That's an impossible thing. If Congress wants to
import drugs, they should take that provision out, because the secretary
of health and human services cannot certify that all drugs coming into
America are safe."
So is the country heading for a new dawn in political accountability,
thanks to young satirists on cable television and the advent of a
progressive radio network for urban America? Mark Katz says it is easy
to exaggerate the influence of humour in the raw business of election
"Sometimes it is just about the funny and having a laugh. The reason why
political humour is so usually cautious is because politicians know that
a great joke will stick around for a week, and a wrong joke will be
reprinted in their obituary."