News

Striking TV writers leave a hole in political campaigns

Julie Hinds
Detroit Free Press (MCT)

Every day seems to bring a new twist to the campaign season, whether it's Mike Huckabee's Christmas-themed ad or Hillary Clinton's attempts to show a softer side.

And every day, fans of the "The Daily Show," "The Colbert Report" and "Saturday Night Live" wonder how those programs would sink their teeth into the political spin and media coverage of such topics - if, that is, the shows weren't in reruns.

The worst thing for viewers about the Hollywood writers strike may not be the effect on favorite sitcoms or dramas.

It could be the missing voices of TV satire during a presidential election cycle, argues Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.

"Late-night comedy has become such an important part of the civic discourse of this nation," says Thompson.

NBC announced this week that Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien are set to return in early January. And ABC said Jimmy Kimmel will be back next month too. Even so, the late-night hosts will be coming back minus their writers, so don't expect streams of jokes on the candidates' foibles.

On the other hand, the buzz is that CBS's David Letterman may be able to return next month along with his writing staff, if his production company is able to negotiate an interim deal with the writers' union.

But talk shows aside, it's really the late-night comedy shows that have provided some of the most influential political commentary of recent years.

Imagine the 2000 presidential race without NBC's "Saturday Night Live" skits with Will Ferrell as George W. Bush and Darrell Hammond as Al Gore, and you'll get an idea of comedy's impact on the culture.

Consider the attention paid to Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" when Stephen Colbert launched his brief run for the White House or when he delivered his sharp critique of the Bush administration and the Washington press corps at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner.

Or ponder this assessment of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" in "Reality Show," Washington Post journalist Howard Kurtz's new book on the network evening news: "The central paradox of `The Daily Show' was that Jon Stewart regularly covered the same ground as the evening newscasts, but, for all his fakery, regularly managed to outclass the networks. His deft use of satire made the television journalists look as clueless as the public figures they chronicled."

For many people who are politically inclined, "The Daily Show" and the others are part of the mix of a typical news diet. They're not the only source of information for viewers, but they appear to be a valued one.

"I like `The Daily Show' because it offers political commentary, with mostly truth, in a satirical fashion," says Khari Wheeler, 32, president of the Michigan Young Democrats and an avid follower of news.

He also watches "The Colbert Report" and "Saturday Night Live" and says "all of those shows offer a fresh perspective and draw young people into the process."

A study released in 2004 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press examined how the public gets its election news. It found 21 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they regularly learn something from comedy shows like "The Daily Show" and "Saturday Night Live," compared to 6 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds.

In the 18-29 group, 13 percent said they learned something from talk shows like Leno and Letterman.

The monologues and skits of late-night offerings make an impression on viewers, but so do guest appearances by candidates.

"Late-night shows have been part of the mix to introduce candidates," says Michael Dimock, associate director of research for the Pew Research Center .

Certain politicians, like John McCain, have become popular faces on the late-night circuit. With no fresh shows at the moment, that's one less avenue for hopefuls like him to reach voters.

In politics, many roads lead to comedy. But Thompson doesn't find anything funny about the current void in political humor on TV.

"As citizens of a republic, we've really come to depend on those comedic voices," he says.

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