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The Jay Leno Show and the rise of political humor

Jay Leno's new show debuts tonight and features a Washington-based political correspondent.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Daniel B. WoodStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / September 14, 2009

Jay Leno's new prime-time comedy hour, which will debut Sept. 14, includes a Washington-based 'political correspondent.'

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Pasadena, Calif.

Robin Williams is killing. Bathed in a spotlight onstage at the TV industry's semi-annual showcase, the comic is keeping the packed ballroom rollicking with the stream-of-consciousness improv that has made him a cultural icon for several decades.

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"It's sad. I mean 'W' is gone," he says of George W. Bush. "He was a gift to comedy.... Sarah carries on for him, though. 'Thank you Sarah.' I mean, how did they find her? 'Project Running Mate?' "

After a short film summing up Mr. Williams's contributions to American comedy since 1977, the affair turns to the serious matter of humor itself. "How would you say comedy in America has changed since you came on the scene 30 years ago?" comes a question from the back of the room.

"It's gotten more interesting," he says. "Politically, it's open season, man, thanks to Jon Stewart.... [T]here's so much to talk about every day."

Out of the mouth of one of America's top comedians comes the same assessment made by cultural anthropologists, historians, and academics who study humor. Comedy of all kinds is proliferating, from the genteel riffs of Ellen DeGeneres to the R-rated barbs of Chris Rock.

But after decades of life on the fringe, political satire – material riffed on and ripped from the news – is becoming the lingua franca of American humor. Topical humor is now the standard rather than exception – it is the sandbox for a new generation of performers in comedy clubs, for the punch-line potentates on cable TV, for the growing legion of late-night talk-show hosts.

"It's being normalized, bringing not just punch lines or gags, but true political satire into the mainstream of American comedy," says John Morreall, a humor expert at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

Behind the shift is a combination of timing, talent, and technology. Experts attribute the rise to the emergence of some gifted comedians (led by political satirists Mr. Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher), alongside an administration that Hollywood considered ripe for skewering (Bush/Cheney), coinciding with a younger generation that is turning away from newspapers to comedians for news.

At the same time, broadband has given the masses the ability to swap their favorite video clips of everything from late-night monologues to local comedy acts. This has fueled the rapid expansion of Internet comedy sites such as YouTube and FunnyOrDie.com and a hunger for immediacy. The 24-hour news cycle provides the perfect pantry from which to feed this voracious appetite.

"Modern America can't escape the news – it's even on a digital readout while you're standing in line at the bank," says Nina Tassler, head of programming at CBS. "It's only natural that entertainment would reflect and comment on that."

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