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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In part, the headlong dive into news- and politics-based humor represents simple pragmatism. With so many late-night talk shows and comedy programs on cable TV, performers need a rich sea vent from which to get their material.Skip to next paragraph
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As 50-year comedy veteran Bob Newhart puts it: "Television is an insatiable beast that must be fed" by writers who "pore through news reports for the tiniest tidbits to keep their material fresh."
Yet to appeal to a mass audience, comedians also need to speak in a universal language. "For their own survival, comedians are trying to reach the broadest and most diverse audiences," says Mr. Thompson. "They need to focus on what is the most shared aspect of everyday life and that, increasingly, is the news."
America, of course, has explored this territory before. Political satire thrived during the American Revolution – in print, onstage, in the public square. Gradually the genre dropped away here while European countries entered a great age of caricature and political cartoons in the 1800s and 1900s.
"Americans are much more passive and much less politically aware [than Europeans]," says Professor Morreall. "Americans tend to go along with things, until they hit a breaking point like the Vietnam or Iraq war."
The modern form of political- and news-based comedy is rooted in the late 1950s. People like comedian-actor Mort Sahl tapped the day's headlines for their routines. Mr. Sahl would actually appear onstage with a newspaper tucked under his arm.
Jack Paar, Johnny Carson's predecessor on "The Tonight Show," dabbled in topical humor, while Lenny Bruce, the stand-up comedian and satirist, took social criticism to a much edgier level, eventually being arrested for violating obscenity laws.
In the late 1960s, there was the Smothers Brothers, and, in the 1970s, the shift of political humor away from talk shows (with the exception of Johnny Carson) to sitcoms like "All in the Family" and "M*A*S*H."
In 1989, Time Warner (owner of HBO) launched the first all-comedy cable channel, marking a hinge moment in the history of humor. It provided an outlet free from the constraints of broadcast TV. Seven years later came "The Daily Show," a self-described "fake news show."
The timing was impeccable. When Stewart took over in 1999, the Clinton impeachment – and his artful denials – were at their peak, providing ripe material to spoof. This was followed by the election crisis of 2000, with its "hanging chads," and eventually the US-led invasion of Iraq. Comedians pinpricked Mr. Bush throughout his presidency.
"It was the perfect type of government for comedy to thrive in," says Morreall. "There was quite a bit under Clinton and a fair amount under Reagan, but it never 'normalized' until Bush/Cheney."
Now mirthologists think the next natural step in the evolution of headline humor is prime-time shows like Mr. Leno's. Already there's evidence of the genre's popularity: strong ratings for Leno's most recent program, as well as for Conan O'Brien's, Jimmy Fallon's, and for "Saturday Night Live." "What we're so excited about is how important topical live comedy is right now," says Ben Silverman, former NBC Universal Entertainment co-chairman, who spearheaded moving Leno to 10 p.m. "All our research showed that America wants more comedy."