The Jay Leno Show and the rise of political humor
Jay Leno's new show debuts tonight and features a Washington-based political correspondent.
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Since humor provides a window into the nation's soul, the rise of headline comedy says a lot about who we are at the moment. Certainly the ability to laugh at our political leaders, and by extension ourselves, is a sign of a healthy society. Some comedians even get more grandiloquent about it than that: They see the purveyors of today's headline humor as not only providing entertainment, but also incisive social commentary at a time when the real media increasingly can't or won't.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet others see the nightly guffaws about Sarah Palin's IQ and Barack Obama's ears adding to the cynicism about government, turning the nation of Jefferson into a nation of smart alecks. In the end, is all this laughter helping us become more politically sophisticated or more superficial?
TO ILLUSTRATE THE "normalization" of news-based humor, look no further than the three-decade journey of "Weekend Update," the segment on "Saturday Night Live," in which comedians sit at an anchor desk and satirize the week's events. The sketch, pioneered in the 1970s, is the longest-running recurring segment on "SNL." But it has always been just one sketch on the show, which airs late Saturday night. For this fall, NBC has ordered six episodes of the fake news show for its prime-time lineup on Thursday night.
The move by Jay Leno to prime time (10 p.m.) Sept. 14 for a full hour of nightly comedy also underscores the rise of headline humor. His show will come complete with comedian D.L. Hughley as a Washington-based "political correspondent" and regular updates from actual NBC news anchor Brian Williams.
Or, if you need a third example of the ubiquity of satire today, consider the evolution of comedians entertaining US troops. As part of his USO tour in 1968, Bob Hope performed at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, accompanied by singer/dancer/heartthrob Ann-Margret, Miss World Penelope Plummer, and the Golddigger Dancers in miniskirts.
Mr. Hope didn't veer much into the politics of the war, in part because he was an ardent supporter of it. But even if his stance would have been different, the war was not a topic you broached blithely at the time: Don't forget that CBS canceled "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" in the late 1960s – when it was the No. 1 show on television – largely for being too critical of Vietnam.
Contrast that with Mr. Colbert's recent trip to Iraq. The war was almost his entire shtick. At one point, he interviewed Iraq's deputy prime minister, Barham Saleh, onstage. "Bob Hope's material stayed far away from the realities of the Vietnam War," says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. "But Stephen Colbert kept it onstage at all times."