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All the news that's fit for monologue

By Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 9, 1998



NORTH HOLLYWOOD, CALIF.

UCLA student Andrew Bodrogligeti will occasionally watch the evening news, but when he really wants to know what's going on, he tunes into Jay Leno's "The Tonight Show."

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"Jay deflates the main news," he muses from a coffeehouse table, peering over the lid of his laptop. "It highlights the irrelevance of most of the main news shows."

Faster than an Associated Press reporter, the denizens of late-night TV daily serve up all the news that's fit for monologue - and a growing share of the public, particularly young people, are drawing their understanding of current events from Jay, David, and Conan.

For better or worse, the trend increases the ever-strengthening hold of pop culture on the consciousness of America. And while lack of editorial oversight in the world of comedy raises concerns, many media analysts laud this democratization of the news.

"Deep down, people feel they're getting something closer to the truth from the comedians," says Robert Thompson of the Center for the Study of Popular TV at the University of Syracuse in New York. "There's no institutional need to protect, no double speak, no stonewalling to cover up high-level misdoing."

For Mr. Bodrogligeti, the Los Angeles college student, laughs are the first draw to the late-night comedy shows. "They make the news fun," he says.

A Gallup poll in July showed that 17 percent of respondents ages 18 to 29 turn to talk shows every day to get their news. Forty-four percent "occasionally" ingest their information about the world from the late-night crowd.

The comics themselves are aware of their role in bringing this generation face to face with the news. Late-late-night host Conan O'Brien submerses himself in it, even referring to what he does as "journalism."

"I watch documentaries, I watch the news," he says. "I watch anything that will help me bring something to the table when I do the show the next day."

"Tonight Show" host Jay Leno doesn't like to discuss the mechanics of his show, saying too much talk about comedy ruins the laugh. But through a spokesman he confirms that he and his writers rifle leading news sources for material. Mr. Leno won't describe his strategy, but he does call himself an "equal opportunity offender," meaning that nobody and nothing are above being fodder for a joke.

Mr. Thompson says the current interest in late-night talk shows can be traced to the night in 1992 when presidential candidate Bill Clinton played his saxophone on "The Arsenio Hall Show."

The candidates, he says, were picking up the scent of an important sea change in this younger generation. "In a lot of ways, the political consciousness of today's younger people is set by these programs much more than by the leaders," Thompson says. Since then, others have picked up the cue, such as Al Gore when he went on "The Late Show With David Letterman."

But if late-night shows become a primary source of information, there's some risk to the public. Fact-checking and confirmation of sources, practices employed in traditional news outlets, are nonexistent in comedy.

Seated in a North Hollywood coffee shop, resident David Nagy agrees. If everything's a joke, he asks, what's to prevent cynicism from setting in, undermining important democratic institutions such as voting and volunteerism? "If you only got your view of the world from David Letterman," he says, "it would be a pretty twisted one."

It's not just the under-30 crowd watching these shows. Mr. Nagy, who belongs to a generation that has "Saturday Night Live" to thank for finally clarifying President Bush's 1,000 Points of Light campaign, tunes in often to late-night TV. But he offers a practical reason for watching: efficiency.

"It's like a Reader's Digest version of the news," agrees media analyst Thompson. These days, he says, people are overwhelmed by the 24-hour news channels, and they welcome anything that will compress all these sources into a manageable size.

"You listen to the five-minute monologue and you get what you need," he adds. In many ways, the professor points out, this tidy narrative is what the 15-minute national news roundup used to be on television, before the explosion of television outlets changed all that. And it's fun, to boot.

Comic Sandi Shore, who has trained many top comedians, says it's no surprise that politics and comedy are coming closer together in what she calls confusing times. "Humor can be a good way of covering up the hurt," she says, speaking of public response to President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. "People are hurt that the president lied, and a good laugh can help heal that hurt."