Puncturing pols online: The best political humor is on the Web

[14 April 2008]

By Jonathan Storm

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

No need to suffer anymore with lame late-night laughers about Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits or John McCain, the Ancient Mariner.

A page is turning in presidential campaign history. For the first time, some of the best and most widely acknowledged political comedy is coming not from millionaire pros, but from the proletariat. And the homemade comedy is helping to energize a large group of new voters.

The best joke on Clinton’s not-so-perilous landing in Bosnia didn’t come from David Letterman or Jay Leno or even Stephen Colbert. It’s a doctored CBS News video on the Internet. Sniper fire fells Clinton aides while she plugs a lurking terrorist.

All the candidates have personal, satirical online cheerleaders. “I Got a Crush ... on Obama,” sings one hottie. “It’s Raining McCain” is the refrain from a somewhat less polished trio.

Everybody used to be a critic. Now everybody’s a comedian, and wisecracks and mash-ups and original videos on the Internet jokesphere are helping define how a wide range of voters see the candidates.

“I think this is part of the new technology and the new life we lead in politics, and a lot of it is very entertaining,” McCain himself told Fox News.

HUMOR ONLINE Highlights of political humor videos on the Internet. (Warning: Some can be pretty blue.) Videos: >> “I Got a Crush ... on Obama” >> “It’s Raining McCain” >> Hillary Girl >> Hillary in Bosnia >> The importance of trivia >> The vital Idgit vote Web sites: >> barelypolitical.com >> theonion.com >> mydamnchannel.com >> heavy.com >> snide.tv >> bluecollarordie.com

A lot of the humor is outright trash, but much is no worse than the increasingly tired verbiage of stand-up TV comedians. Some is strikingly better.

It’s far from gravy for the candidates.

Despite the best-laid plans to project their own well-crafted image, “they may be losing some control” to online pranksters and smarty-pants, said Karen Jagoda, president of E-Voter Institute.

“Nobody’s sure what it all means yet (but) there is a certain truthiness to the humor, somehow, that may reveal more of a candidate’s real characteristics than speeches or advertising.”

It’s no coincidence that Jagoda, whose organization has been working for 10 years to help candidates and advocacy groups use the Internet, chose truthiness, a word coined by Colbert in 2005 to signify an intuitive reality that probably ignores the facts.

Time after time, experts interviewed for this article cited the star, who brings his “Colbert Report” to the University of Pennsylvania this week, and his Comedy Central colleague Jon Stewart, who hosts “The Daily Show,” as TV’s top purveyors of relevant political humor.

“‘The Daily Show’ is one of the few places on television where one learns new things,” said Douglas Raybeck, professor emeritus of cultural anthropology at Hamilton College.

Earlier this month, for example, it took viewers to the dorm of a Democratic Party superdelegate who was also a nerdy college student - lots of laughs, but also instructive that a person so young could be a superdelegate and that he was so earnest in his desire to do the right thing at the convention.

But Colbert, and, more so Stewart, don’t split themselves completely from the late-night comedy pack. The day after visiting the superdelegate, Stewart did a lengthy, video-backed riff on Old Man McCain (served water to Lincoln at Gettysburg, drew the first prehistoric cave paintings in France).

McCain’s age is basically the only joke TV comedians have about the Republican candidate, and, as is traditional in their field, they pound it into the ground. (Letterman and Leno are still making jokes about Jim McGreevey, New Jersey’s gay American former governor.)

In a week-long survey (April 1-7), Letterman and Leno, only 10 and 14 years younger, respectively, than the candidate, joked about McCain at least 18 times in their monologues. Only one quip was not about his age. Clinton came in for at least 11 barbs, including several pantsuit jibes from Letterman and several from Leno about her assertion that she was the Rocky Balboa of the campaign.

Barack Obama, apparently, is not very funny. Letterman mentioned him once; Leno, four times, concentrating on his widely reported bowling ineptitude.

Obama’s alter ego appeared not at all April 5 on “Saturday Night Live,” once the acknowledged titan of American political satire, and the show breathed his name only three times. Fred Armisen, who does a riotous Prince and who has been tapped to impersonate Obama, has his appearance in hand, but so far has seemed thwarted by the senator’s bland mannerisms.

Things are radically different on the Internet.

At 7.8 million hits and counting, “I Got a Crush ... on Obama” has turned Amber Lee Ettinger, who plays the buxom and besotted Obama Girl, into a celebrity. And it has inspired the Internet birth not just of the McCain Girls, but of Hillary Girl, who’s a lesbian.

“All the things that have come out of Obama Girl, response videos, blog comments (35,000 on YouTube alone) - that’s the biggest difference between mainstream and online,” said Ben Relles, founder and creative director of BarelyPolitical.com, which produced “I’ve Got a Crush ... on Obama” last June and Clinton in Bosnia late last month.

The participation that the Internet encourages, contrasting with the passivity of television, is showing up in the elections themselves: Registration and turnout are up in virtually every state.

Whether on Facebook, YouTube or would-be commercial humor sites like BarelyPolitical, says Joe Tuman, West Coast political analyst for CBS and author of “Political Communication in American Campaigns,” “People have a way to connect with each other that they haven’t had in the past, and they’re talking, enthused about, and interested in the election outcome.”

Some worry that campaigns may be able to undermine competitors with subversive, and anonymous, Internet humor. Not so, say the experts.

“I put a lot of faith and credit in the collective,” said Gur Tsabar, new media strategist for the marketing and public relations company Ketchum Inc. and founder of the New York City political blog Room Eight. “We have a lot of knowledge and confidence about what we’re consuming, and B.S. can be identified if it doesn’t pass our gut test.”

Besides, the electoral thrust of a piece of humor may not be what it appears.

Glenn Kessler, whose Flemington, N.J., company, HCD Research, organizes online focus groups to analyze advertising, turned his science loose on “I’ve Got a Crush ... on Obama.”

By the time it was over, nearly 40 percent of viewers were experiencing extremely negative views of the candidate. Ettinger’s flouncy beauty, not surprisingly, quickly turned women off, but nearly 25 percent of men weren’t too keen on Obama, either, as the song progressed. Maybe they wanted the bombshell for themselves. (HCD’s MediaCurves.com provides fascinating, second-by-second research into all sorts of video, from political ads to Paris Hilton’s post-prison interview with Larry King.)

The joke, not the vote, should be the thing for Internet humorists, said BarelyPolitical’s Relles.

With four full-time writers, including singer Leah Kauffman, who supplies Ettinger’s vocals, Relles’ company is one of many little ones with more sophisticated production techniques than cell-phone-wielding teens (who do more than their share of silly Internet stuff). But even commercial Internet humor videos remain extremely low-budget, rarely costing more than $5,000.

Biggest on the Web, and acknowledged as best in the same way that Colbert and Stewart get TV props, is the Onion News Network, a complete sham of an online TV news operation that’s a branch of the venerable satirical newspaper. Both Relles and Tuman cited its video about the importance of trivia in campaign coverage as the best piece of political humor yet on the Net. (ONN uses a harsher and more humorous word than trivia.)

Unbridled free speech (a current favorite has Clinton and Obama hooking up in a takeoff of an original, blue video by comedian Sarah Silverman) is one of the boons of the Internet, the experts say.

The jokes and their attendant commentary may be powering a significant cultural shift.

“People, especially young people, now have the ability to actively engage in their own vernacular,” said cultural anthropologist Raybeck. “Unlike TV watchers, who feel they have no control, these people have a perceived control of the media.

“Perceiving that you’re not at the mercy of the system, that you matter, is really an important component in anybody’s ego, and these people are not going to give it up. The culture at large may have to become a little more user-friendly.”

And that’s no laughing matter.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/puncturing-pols-online-the-best-political-humor-is-on-the-web/