Comedy Central Pokes at Politics

LUCILLE BALL, Ernie Kovacs, and Alan King are all funny people, but it wasn't their shows that catapulted cable's only all-comedy network into television's mainstream this year. It was the line-item veto.

This, along with other issues in President Bush's State of the Union speech last February, provided fodder for Comedy Central's cynical commentators, who were shipped to Washington to give analysis of the speech for a 90-minute special called "The State of the Union - Undressed."

"It was a defining event for the network," says president and CEO Robert Kreek. "We realized comedy and politics were exactly where we wanted to be."

Lightning couldn't have struck in a better year. Comedy Central, formed when HA! and the Comedy Channel merged in April 1991, normally offers its 25 million viewers a 24-hour lineup of original stand-up shows and old sitcoms like "The Lucy Show," "McHale's Navy," and "The Ernie Kovacs Show."

But with the political rhetoric of the 1992 elections escalating by the minute, the channel opted to preempt its popular "Saturday Night Live" reruns for nightly coverage of both Democratic and Republican conventions.

A colorful array of correspondents - from playwright Wendy Wasserstein to veteran New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin to conservative pundit Norman Ornstein - prowled the convention floors of New York and Houston with the likes of network anchors Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather.

Viewers of the commercial networks, however, missed Ms. Wasserstein's critique of political correctness at the Democratic convention in New York, and the insights of comedy writer Buck Henry, such as "The mood here is one of pure excitement. Everyone is wearing hats."

Nor did they see a strangely willing Norman Ornstein dive headfirst into a white-frosted cake after winning a "best-sound-bite" contest at the Republican convention. Or comedian Penn Jillette's exclusive interview with "the most nervous man at the convention," the person responsible for the release of hundreds of balloons following the president's acceptance speech.

`IN good comedy, there is an element of truth," says Mr. Jillette, the talkative member of the comic-magician duo Penn & Teller. "If you're iffy on whether you want to watch deadly dull news coverage of the facts, getting some information with a comedic spin could clue in viewers to important issues that they might otherwise never have learned about," he says. "I think some very important things are said with a giggle after it," he adds.

Comedy Central's main audience is comprised of 18- to 34-year-olds, one of the age groups least likely to vote. By offering this unprecedented comic commentary, the network is attracting viewers who might flip channels during standard political reports, says spokesman Tony Fox. "We're bringing people to the political process that otherwise might not be interested," he says.

The election coverage has also brought the network the attention of TV critics who previously ignored its programming. Overall, columnists have praised Comedy Central's blend of deadpan, sophisticated, and off-the-wall convention reporting.

And it's only the beginning for Comedy Central's political career. Plans are in the works for election day coverage and possibly the presidential and vice-presidential debates.

Next year, the network may launch a half-hour nightly news show - with a comic edge, of course. It would report on the same events covered by other news programs, while offering "something that takes the sting out of the front page of The New York Times," says Mr. Kreek.

This emphasis on politics does not exclude viewers who tune into Comedy Central as an escape from the reality of current events. There will still be the Monty Python reruns; the salad-day performances of big-time comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, and Dana Carvey; and the well-received Mystery Science Theater 3000, a series featuring a man and two robots in outer space providing running jokes and commentary on some of the worst movies ever made.

"There's a utilitarian convenience to being able to tap into some sort of laughter anytime of the day," says syndicated television critic Tom Shales.

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