Politics as punch line

Young voters are turning to comics like (above) Jon Stewart, Dennis Miller, and Bill Maher as an alternative to the news anchors.

Philosophy major Joe Harper has never voted in a presidential election. He doesn't know yet whom he'll vote for this fall. He is clear on one thing, however.

"I'm not watching the evening news to figure it out, that's for sure," says the 21-year-old college student. His favorite sources of information about the candidates are the ones increasingly favored by the under-30 crowd, the comedy of Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" and "anything" from Bill Maher. "I trust these guys," says Mr. Harper. "Their stuff is funnier, but it's also truer."

Harper is clearly not a lone voice. The number of young adults turning to late-night comedy and talk shows for political insight doubled from 10 to 20 percent in the past four years, according to a recent study of some 1,500 adults by the Pew Research Center. And, say the pundits of presidential politics, this is really just a part of a deeper trend: More voters of all ages are using comic relief as a tool to cut through the media circus of modern political campaigns.

"Comedy has always been the best way to tell the truth," says film director Robert Altman, whose cult TV classic, "Tanner 88," a satirical series about a fictional presidential candidate in the 1988 election, returns with updates by the original cast this week on the Sundance Channel. "Young people turn to comedy and satire because they want the truth," Mr. Altman says. "If you really want to know what's going on behind closed doors and inside politicians' minds, sometimes the only way to get at it is through humor."

The proliferation of media choices has just made it that much easier to do, says Steffen Schmidt, a professor at Iowa State University, who is still hoarse from his many media appearances during last week's Iowa caucuses.

"There are so many more ways to cut down pompous elites," says the professor. Modern politicians from John F. Kennedy through Howard Dean have tapped the power of the late-night talk show hosts to show viewers what regular guys they were.

But now, "there are so many outlets, so many more ways to reach people. And laughter sells." People don't have time to make sense of things, particularly complex issues. Humor is an easy shortcut to tap into current events. "What we're talking about," says Mr. Schmidt, "is the oldest form of communication that has existed since the first caveman leader stepped on a club and whacked himself and everybody laughed about it down at the Brontosaurus Club for weeks."

All the news that's fit to snicker at

If there's any doubt that comedy has entered the world of mainstream political commentary in a big way, consider that in just the past week or so, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw wrapped up his State of the Union address coverage by interviewing Jon Stewart.

Howard Dean made his bid to recover from his Iowa scream by allowing David Letterman to make him list the Top Ten ways to recover from his political howler. And humorist Dave Barry opined as a regular commentator on Chris Matthews' regular show that instead of using political wives to stand behind them, candidates ought to use prisoners because that would give voters a better idea of the job requirements.

Laughing all the way to the polls

Comedy is also an easy detour for a public figure who's beset by serious questions. "Politicians use comedies and nighttime talk shows to promote themselves and avoid the kind of questions reporters routinely ask," says Stephanie Larson, associate professor of political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

Of course, politicians are not the only ones looking for alternatives. "The networks want to promote their products," she says. "The network news draws viewers to its late night shows by inserting clips from [them]." Comedian Dennis Miller was "all over CNBC and MSNBC as a 'guest' just before he came out with his show."

History certainly bears out the notion that comedy often gets at the deepest truths, says Schmidt, who grew up under a dictatorship in Colombia.

"There are plenty of places still where you can't tell the truth about political leaders because you could be killed," he says, adding that many great works of literature were written as disguised commentaries on the political leaders of the time. "Mother Goose stories were all political humor," he says. "The Brothers Grimm and many funny folk tales and stories were all about real-life rulers."

However, laughter can have a downside in a democracy, says Schmidt. In today's much more open society, where presumably a comedian can't be killed for criticizing a politician, jokes can lead to trivialization of important issues.

"I just hope," says Schmidt, "that at least it will stimulate political discussion in people's homes, even while they're laughing."

While most people enjoy a good laugh at a politician's expense, politicians aren't always keen to invite the laughter in. Four years ago, reporters for the first edition of Jon Stewart's presidential election coverage say they didn't count on any access. "We learned that, against all their best judgment, people will talk to us," says Stephen Colbert, an "Indecision 2004" faux news correspondent. "So we can actually get people. In 2000, we weren't sure whether we could."

Although, he adds with a laugh, a higher profile cuts both ways. "Years ago, I would say 'The Daily Show,' and people would assume I meant some daily news show on CNN," he says. "Now, I say 'The Daily Show,' and they go, 'Daily Show, Daily Show, oh, OK, OK. No.' "

Stewart himself declines the mantle of "wiseman for the young" and says his only goal is to get something honest and amuse people of all ages along the way.

"That's all we want, one human moment," he told reporters at a recent press event for television critics. Getting Senate minority leader Tom Daschle to giggle about the burden of doing debates was a good example. "That's the moment you look for, where they're showing their humanity," Stewart says, adding with a slightly arched eyebrow, "if it still exists, which in many cases, as you know, it does not."

The straightjacket of network news

Nonetheless, comedy is a natural draw for younger viewers, says comedian Dennis Miller, who returns this week with a new eponymous show on CNBC.

"I don't think kids even vaguely connect to guys like Jennings and Dan Rather," says Miller, in discussing his new show with television critics and reporters. "If you're an 18-year-old, who are you going to trust to give you the facts? Dan Rather in that epaulet jacket where he's just about to go fly fishing after the show, or are you going to listen to Jon Stewart? Of course, you're going to listen to Jon."

Nonetheless, says Mr. Rather, he reaches younger viewers through the comedians, who watch the news. "If we cover something on the evening news, then Jon Stewart may very well deal with it on his show or Letterman on his." They feed one another, says the CBS News anchor.

Generation gap notwithstanding, Valley College student Harper says comedy also draws people together. "Issues are getting more and more complex all the time," says the philosophy and theater double major, who reads Noam Chomsky in his spare time.

"Comedy helps simplify things. It demystifies things like the war and the budget and things we need to know about but don't understand. Also," he adds with a smile, "it makes people feel good about themselves and their fellow human beings."

Which is not the way the regular news make you feel, he says. Harper has his own name for those shows. He calls them the nightly edition of "Are You Scared Enough Yet?"

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