Considering that the largest audience in six years had tuned in to watch “Saturday Night Live,” many of them curious to see what kind of treatment that Sarah Palin would get on the show, and considering that Tina Fey is not exactly known for her characters (unless you count Liz Lemon, her “30 Rock” character, who may just be Fey channeling her single-gal years), it’s pretty impressive that Fey was able to meet or exceed expectations with her dead-on (if Upper Midwest-sounding) impression of Sarah Palin on “SNL” last weekend.
That said, you wonder if anyone, anyone changed their presidential preference after that performance. Wait, I’ll answer that in a word: no. Not one person changed their mind based on Tina Fey. Anyone think she’s voting Republican? Think she’s voted Republican in her life? The whole sketch was designed as catharsis for Hillary-supporting Democrats ... like Tina Fey.
Jay Leno, on the other hand, is a classic equal-opportunity-offender late night comedian. He may not sway anyone’s vote either. But he does stand up for 14 minutes five nights a week and deliver a monologue. And as someone regarded by his fans as a fair dealer - as someone whose audience is as middle-America as it gets - he has a power that Tina Fey, Jon Stewart, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, to name a few, cannot exert. It’s the power to introduce a partisan idea into the mainstream without sounding (or being) partisan.
And that’s why, if you’re one of these Democrats who’s been whining for two weeks that no one in the mainstream media will stand up to Sarah Palin and the people backing her, you may want to have a look at Jay Leno’s monologue the past few nights.
“The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” is late night’s No. 1-rated show by a country mile, averaging 4.7 million viewers a night to David Letterman’s 3.5 million viewers. Here now, from the last three monologues for which I have the transcripts, are almost all of the political jokes told, all in just the past week, on Leno’s show. See if you notice a trend. First we’ll start with Monday’s monologue:
“Did you all see Sarah Palin’s interview with Charlie Gibson? In fact, John McCain was watching it at home and at one point he turned to his wife and said, “She looks really familiar.”
“As you know, the Republicans are still keeping her away from the mainstream press. ... Actually, Sarah Palin is going from her interview with Gibson on ABC to one with Sean Hannity on Fox. That should be hard hitting! That’s like going from hardball to tee ball, isn’t it?
“Sarah Palin said she is ready for Sean Hannity. In fact, she spent all day today writing out the questions he’s going to ask her.
“If you saw the big interview with Gibson, Sarah Palin quoted Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln said, “Let us not pray that God is on our side in a war or any other time, but let us pray that we are on God’s side.” Here’s the amazing part. You know who Abraham Lincoln said that to? John McCain. (Ronald Reagan used to tell a version of this joke on himself.)
“In the Gibson interview, a lot of people thought Charlie Gibson was unfair to her. They thought he was talking down to her. That was one of the comments. Like when he asked her about the so-called Bush doctrine. Most people aren’t familiar with the Bush doctrine. I mean, we are, but we know it by another name: “Murphy’s Law.”
“Here’s something I mentioned last week. For some reason the Secret Service revealed this. Sarah Palin’s Secret Service code name is “Denali.” Turns out Denali is an old Eskimo word that means Dan Quayle.
And here are all of Leno’s political jokes on Friday:
“If you watched TV, you know that Charlie Gibson did something John McCain has never done: interviewed Sarah Palin.
“Last night Sarah Palin gave an interview with ABC’s CHarlie Gibson. Earlier today her future son-in-law was on Maury Povich: “You are the father!”
“At one point Charlie Gibson asked Palin about the Bush doctrine but she didn’t know what it was. To be fair, even Bush doesn’t know what the Bush doctrine is.
“That was the big bone of contention on the cable talk shows. Supporters of Palin say that it’s OK she doesn’t know what the Bush doctrine is because the average American doesn’t know what it is. Shouldn’t the bar be a little higher for this job? Shouldn’t it be a little above average? I’m mean, let’s be honest we already had an average guy as president. It didn’t work out that great.
“The most important question that I would have asked her last night? “How were you treated at ABC? Are they nice people? Are they easy to work with?” That’s what I would have asked.
“Sarah Palin was also asked if we might have to go to war with Russia. She said, “perhaps so.” Perhaps so? Isn’t that like a magic 8-ball kind of answer? Will we have to go to war? “Reply hazy. Try again later. It is decidedly so.”
“Today the Secret Service revealed that Sarah Palin’s Secret Service code name is “Denali.” Here’s my question, what’s the secret part? I mean if the Secret Service is going to give you a Secret Service code name, shouldn’t they keep it a secret? Why not just call her Sarah?
“They also revealed that Sarah’s husband Todd, who works in the oil field . . . His Secret Service code name is “driller.” I guess they figured Bill Clinton wasn’t using it anymore.
“And as you know they’ve already come out with a Sarah Palin action figure. Today the Democrats released a Joe Biden action figure, and it talks . . . and talks. . . and talks. . . You can’t get the thing to shut up.
“And the other day while talking to a group of supporters, Joe Biden said that Hillary Clinton might have been a better pick for vice president than him. Yeah, that’s one way to get the base fired up, huh? Tell them they picked the wrong person.
“And according to an AP article in the paper today, Sarah Palin’s church in Alaska is promoting a conference that promises to convert gays into heterosexuals through the power of prayer. They call it “pray away the gay.” It’s a lot better than the original title: “Think outside the bun.”
“And Charles Rangel, Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, the guy who writes the tax codes. He has been found to be in default on taxes on income of a beach villa that he owns in the Caribbean. Rangel blamed it on his accountant and then said he didn’t understand the law. Didn’t understand it? He wrote it! If he don’t understand it how screwed are we?
“Some good news for John McCain—his poll numbers are up 4 percent and liver spots are down 3 percent.
“Dick Cheney told reporters this week that “there is no reason why Sarah Palin cannot be a successful vice president in a McCain administration.” In fact, not only can she shoot a lawyer in the face, she can field dress him as well.
“Many people are saying that Gov. Palin has really put Alaska on the map. To which President Bush said, “really? Then how come I still can’t find it?”
“The glasses that Sarah Palin wears are a hot item. They’re selling much better than Joe Biden hair plugs. Those aren’t moving at all.
“As you all know, President Bush was not at the Republican Convention due to a disaster. His presidency.
“Out on the campaign trail this week, McCain, once again, McCain talked about the nightmare of being stuck in a little 8 x 10 foot room thinking that he would go crazy. Not in Viet Nam - the time he got stuck in the Capitol Hill elevator with Joe Biden and the guy wouldn’t shut up.
“I guess they are getting a little worried at the Barack Obama campaign…It’s so close now. I guess Barack plans to have lunch with Bill Clinton this week. That’s gotta be a little uncomfortable, huh? You’ll have someone who has a strained relation with Hillary, having lunch with the democratic presidential nominee.
“Boy George has released a new song that is inspired by Barack Obama. It’s called “Yes We Can.” Well, if that doesn’t put Obama over the top with the Joe Sixpack crowd, nothing will. You want to reach Ohio…that’s the way to do it, with Boy George.
“What do you think of McCain’s slogan: “Country First.” Isn’t that one of those mortgage companies that folded a couple of months ago? Oh, that was Countrywide…
“As you know, this past weekend the government announced a massive bailout of mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Just to give you an idea how big the bailout is - they actually had to tell President Bush about it.
You get the point. As of right now, the juiciest target for his humor are the people who are spinning Sarah Palin’s vice presidential ambitions. Notice how he returns to the same topics night after night: Bush’s incompetence. McCain’s irrelevance. Palin’s handlers’ spin.
I find it interesting that Leno can get away with doing what Brian Williams can’t do: Openly mock Republican talking points in a nonpartisan setting. You don’t see any rumors about Republican women boycotting Leno, do you? McCain lackeys aren’t wasting their breath going after NBC’s entertainment division with the lustiness of their attacks on NBC’s news division. (Because they want John and Cindy to make return visits to Jay’s couch.)
Yet, right now, the entertainment side may be doing more damage to the Palin-McCain ticket.
Johnny Carson, toward the end of his career, called Dan Quayle “the gift that keeps on giving.” But that was a role that many a politician played in the “Tonight Show” monologue under Carson, a rogue’s gallery of Democrats as well as Republicans, from Earl Butz to Bert Lance to Billy Carter to Ronald Reagan to James Watt to Bush 41. (Those are the ones I recall from memory.)
The crucial difference this time is the candidate is not the butt of Leno’s Palin jokes. Her supporters are. While Tina Fey attacks Palin directly, questioning her credentials and mocking her beauty-queen poses, Leno pokes gentle (sometimes not-so-gentle) fun at the McCain campaign for keeping Palin on a short leash.
You may know that Mavis Leno is a longtime supporter of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which sounds very much like a Democratic cause. On the other hand, her big feminist cause is educating Afghan women and protecting them from the Taliban. Well heck, even Laura Bush has spoken out in favor of that. I used to refer to the Lenos as “Mavis and Avis,” back when Jay was trying harder because he was in second place. The idea still holds, though: They are a pair, a good pair, and you can see the influence of Mavis, I would argue, in Leno’s refusal to attack Palin as many Democrats are doing. The Palin presented here is more in line with her self-image: smart, competent, clever. Maybe too clever.
Do I think everybody reading this believes Jay Leno is neutral in the 2008 election? No. I think the Republicans probably think he is biased against their candidate and the Democrats think he is secretly an Obama man.
But their opinions really don’t matter here. It’s the swayable middle that matters. And Leno, in the service of a good laugh, is planting ideas in the minds of the uncommitted. He’s doing what the spin machine is trying to keep the mainstream news media from doing: namely, expressing doubts that are on people’s minds about the newest star on the national political scene. Comedy is a lot of things, but some of the most effective comedy today boils down to saying what’s on people’s minds. Cedric the Entertainer does it. Bill Engvall does it. Howard Stern does nothing but. And Leno does it.
By the way: How many people will remember the Biden hair plug joke, do you think?
Final thought: Conan O’Brien doesn’t do this kind of monologue. We may be approaching the end of an era going back to Jack Paar, over 50 years ago.