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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.

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Ultimately, the tenor and amount of political satire coming into our living rooms and iPhones may be self-regulated. On the Dean Martin roasts of the 1960s, one of the biggest staples was one-liners about drunkenness. But as the dangers of alcohol became more prevalent, drunk jokes diminished. If headline humor were to become too caustic, one-sided, or omnipresent, it may receive the ultimate rebuke – the sound of no one laughing.

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In the meantime, everyone may want to sit back and enjoy it. As Mr. Newhart reminds us: "Comedy allows you distance in a difficult situation. It allows you to face something directly and move on. Without it, we'd be curled up in a fetal position in a dark room."

How comedians skewer politicans around the world

Combine comedian Jon Stewart with impersonator Rich Little and a touch of the Queen's English and you've got Rory Bremner, a quick-witted British comic who specializes in tweaking powerful political figures both at home and abroad.

His spot-on impersonations of everyone from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush place him firmly in the English tradition of performers using the pointed barb of satire to shed a different light on the news.

In fact, over the centuries, virtually every country has evolved its own variation of the tradition of people speaking truth to the powerful by cloaking their swords in the costume of the clown.

"The use of satire to skewer politicians and corporate interests is a universal phenomenon we can find deep in history," says Jack Lule, a global cultural expert at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. He points to contemporary examples as diverse as Italy's Beppe Grillo, an activist-performer who has been dubbed the "clown prince," and Malaysia's Zunar, a political cartoonist and founder of the satirical magazine Gedung Katun.

Countries such as Egypt, which have tried to control traditional media, have witnessed an explosion of politically barbed comedy on the Internet. The Egyptian satirist Magdy Saad, whose blog Yalla Mesh Mohem ("Who Cares?"), routinely tweaks Egyptian leaders, was arrested this summer. Comedians are penning and performing their spoofs elsewhere in the tumultuous region, too. "Both the Palestinians and Israelis have made some attempts at using humor to make a point, and even to heal," says Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a marketing professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. One example: "West Bank Story," a short musical comedy based on West Side Story's classic Romeo and Juliet theme, except in this case it's Palestinians and Israelis with warring falafel stands.