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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As topical humor has become more pervasive, its tone and content have become bolder and at times coarser. Cable TV and the Internet have contributed to the freer – and fouler – voice.Skip to next paragraph
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Consider these two bookends in the genre's evolution: After John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, Sahl started making jokes about the administration's policies. But television host Ed Sullivan, whose prime-time show was one of the few outlets on TV for comedians, wouldn't let Sahl do any jokes about the president, even though Sahl had actually done some speechwriting for Kennedy.
Now fast-forward to the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association dinner, where the featured entertainer was Colbert. In his typical in-your-face style, he unleashed a comedic diatribe about Washington, including President Bush, who was sitting a few feet away. "A lot of people compare this administration to the Titanic," said Colbert in his mock conservative-defends-the-president outrage. "I say nooooooo, it's the Hindenburg.... It soars."
At least some boundaries on how far comedians can go remain in place, particularly on broadcast TV. David Letterman got in trouble this year – and apologized – for making sexual-based monologue references to Sarah Palin and her family.
Sensing perhaps a saturation of headline humorists, some comedians are trying to avoid becoming just another dissector of the news. Brad Garrett, the comedian best known for playing Robert Barone on "Everybody Loves Raymond," has developed a shtick he calls "personal politics" – not culled from the news – for his 40 gigs a year in venues across America. "Bill Maher and Colbert and Stewart are brilliant comedians because of their gift for telling it like it is and making news more digestible," says Mr. Garrett. "Do I think we need more of it? No."
Scottish immigrant Craig Ferguson, who hosts CBS's "Late Late Show," uses puppets, monologues, and skits with outrageous hats, costumes, and makeup. While he'll touch on political topics, he tries not to be caustic on certain subjects. America, for him, is "a flag and an ideal," he says. "It's a dream. I have difficulty playing with that in any kind of iconoclastic way on the show because it's such an important thing for me."
ALL OF WHICH raises a deeper question: If we're moving into a golden age of satire, which some people think we are, is it good or bad for society? Americans do seem to be laughing more – or at least should be. That's because there are so many more outlets for comedians today – more late-night talk shows, more comedy clubs, more cable TV channels, and, notably, the Internet.
Comedian Drew Carey notes that Larry the Cable Guy, the stage name of stand-up comic Daniel Lawrence Whitney, whose redneck character has a huge following online, made $21 million in 2006 "and that was just his road money." Thanks to the Internet, "now you don't have to trudge over to the Playboy Club and try to get your 20 minutes on stage," says Mr. Carey.