The place where political messages are reduced to their simplest form, but perhaps also their most enduring, is late-night comedy/talk shows.
Here news events that have entered the American psyche are morphed into accepted attitudes and become punchlines.
Late night comedy is also a place where some Americans, particularly young people, glean information about the election. A Pew Research Center survey earlier this year found one-in-five young people say they regularly get campaign news from late-night comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show.1
Certainly anything that is monologue fodder may be harder for a candidate to shake. Just ask Janet Reno. It's been a while since she has presided over the justice department, but in the programs we examined, she is still sometimes the object of late night humor.
That said, the character themes of campaign 2004-and on the comedy shows, to be sure, we mean the embarrassing negative themes-are present, but they do not dominate. In all, 23 jokes from the 20 nights studied hit on the character themes that permeate the news coverage and political advertising. (Out of 60 possible shows, 33 were studied here; the others were re-runs from outside the time period.)
The theme that appeared most often was that Bush lacks credibility.
But it appeared just 9 times, or about once out of every seven programs.
The second most common theme, a close second, was the notion that Kerry flip flops. It appeared 7 times.
Neither, in other words, may have reached the point of critical mass.
Bush is Dumb
The most common political punchline about the candidates, however, is a holdover from campaign 2000. It's the idea that Bush is dim or somehow not up to being president intellectually. That idea appeared almost as often as all the 2004 story themes combined, 19 times, or virtually every night.
Sometimes these digs were subtle, as on the April 8 Daily Show when host John Stewart aired clips of Condoleezza Rice defending the Bush administration:
RICE: I do not believe there was a lack of high level attention. The President was paying attention. How much more high-level can you get?
STEWART: Well, I suppose it could have went to Cheney.
Sometimes the references were more straight-on as on April 13 when David Letterman discussed the upcoming Bush press conference.
LETTERMAN: It's such a big deal that Fox, the Fox Network, decided it would preempt its American Idol show and just have the George W. Bush press conference instead. And I thought, you know, that makes sense, you don't want too many amateurs on on the same night.
It doesn't appear, however, that this message is digging into voters' opinions of Bush. In the survey data "intelligence" was cited as a negative Bush trait only 4% of the time. It may be that the "Bush is over his head" theme, while it still gets laughs, is largely written off as good-natured ribbing by voters in 2004.
Of the swipes at Bush's credibility, five of those came in the two nights when Late Show host Letterman showed a tape of a boy yawning while the President was speaking. The joke later became about the White House's response to the veracity of the tape.
When it came to Kerry as a flip-flopper, both Tonight Show host Jay Leno and Letterman took a few shots.
LENO on March 29: I like to hear both sides of an issue. That's why I listen to John Kerry. I know, sooner or later, I'll get both sides of an issue. In fact, today John Kerry cleared up his military position on Iraq. He voted yes on shock but no on awe.
On his May 19th show Letterman ran what he said was a commercial from Shrek 2 that included various positive reviews from Gene Shalit and Roger Ebert, and this review from John Kerry: "I can't say at this juncture whether I liked it or didn't like it. I deem it feasible to withhold judgment until all the facts are out as this issue is far too complex to get into in such a limited forum. But I do feel it pertinent to remind everyone I was a military hero."
The Shows Individually
The Tonight Show – The most popular late night show is, perhaps not surprisingly, also the least edgy in its political joke selection. The image of Bush lacking credibility-probably the most contentious, provocative story theme-did not show up in a single gag on the Tonight Show.
And while some jokes in Leno's monologue were linked to the day's news events, when they concerned Bush they always spun off into the area of Bush lacking intelligence. Jokes about Bush being over his head or slow appeared 14 times in the days we watched The Tonight Show. Leno's March 31 monologue was ripe with such jokes.
LENO: Bush will testify but he says he wants Dick Cheney with him. Why does he have to have Cheney with him? What does he have like a learning permit to be president?
LENO: Cheney is kind of like that pilot who was with the President when he landed on the aircraft carrier. They want someone in the plane who knows what the hell he's doing.
The show's reaching back to a dominant theme from the 2000 campaign is not surprising when one watches Leno. On this show jokes deal with topics that often have more than a few gray hairs on them and sometimes curl all the way to the Clinton Administration and Janet Reno. It's also interesting to note, however, that the Tonight Show was the only late night program in the period we watched to zing John Kerry on the charge of elitism. After Kerry had minor shoulder surgery, Leno quipped, "There was one slightly scary moment during John Kerry's operation. Apparently the transfusion room ran out of blue blood." And after Kerry appeared on MTV for an interview, Leno jabbed him a few more times for his background. "He said he is fascinated by rap and hip-hop. (pause, laughter) And what Yale-educated, white millionaire from Massachusetts is not fascinated by hip-hop."
But Leno's shots, whomever he hits, are seldom nasty. If predictable, Leno's political humor on network TV is largely genial.
Late Show – If the Tonight Show sometimes sounds like dinner theater from the Poconos, the political jokes on the Late Show have a more post modern air. Letterman's on-stage presence is that of a guy who is in on the joke, and sometimes his humor is aimed at much at drawing groans from the crowd as laughs. The monologues are generally less focused on politics, but even when they are the humor often seems to come around to Letterman in some way. A good example is the minor commotion that erupted when Letterman ran video from a Bush speech that showed a boy standing behind the President yawning and checking his watch under the segment "George W. Bush Invigorating America's Youth." On March 29 the show ran the video for the original joke, but for days after Letterman ran clips of CNN saying the video was staged expressing outrage with a mock air of seriousness.
LETTERMAN on March 30: That is an out and out, absolute, 100 % lie. The kid was exactly standing where we said he was. So when you cast your vote in November remember that the White House was trying to make me look like a dope.
Letterman also dug into Bush several times on the question of the President's National Guard service, such as April 14 when the host discussed the president's press conference the previous night. "He said Iraq is not another Vietnam. Well, of course not. He avoided Vietnam."
Interestingly Kerry took fewer hits, only two in the days we studied, but the story theme the Late Show hit was Kerry as a flip-flopper. On March 30, for example Letterman ran what looked like C-SPAN video from a Senate vote and played this voice-over:
ANNOUNCER: Mr. Kennedy? Mr. Kennedy votes no. Mr. Kerry? Mr. Kerry votes no. Wait, now Mr. Kerry votes yes. Ok, now he says no. Back to yes. Now back to no.
On the whole the Late Show is probably harder on the president that the Tonight Show. The sheer volume of jokes might be higher with Jay Leno, but Letterman's barbs are more pointed.
The Daily Show – In a way, comparing John Stewart's Daily Show to Leno and Letterman is like comparing apples to Asian pears. One is mainstream. The other is a more exotic fruit. To begin with, Stewart's show has a different approach, that of a mock newscast that tailors to a niche cable television audience. The news format keeps the program very topical. And the audience, apparently full of more news junkies aware of the subtleties of the day's events than the other shows, means the Daily Show deals less in the broad political messages or even the main protagonists. While Leno and Letterman aim their broadsides at Bush and Kerry, Stewart and his crew will mock cabinet figures and others in the Bush Administration that many network audiences might not be able to identify.
In fact, it had the fewest themes of the three shows by far, only four. It was the least likely to fall back on old jokes and narrative themes-unless they are relevant to the stories at hand. And much of the Daily Show's appeal is not that it simply makes fun of politicians, but of the artifice that surrounds television journalism, the jargon, the sometimes overly earnest tone.
When the Daily Show does stories about Iraq, the jabs it takes are often not aimed at Bush in particular, but on the Administration as a whole or at specific member of the Bush team. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for example, took some hits when the Abu Ghraib story broke. Vice President Dick Cheney is also a frequent target. This is another advantage the Daily Show has. Jokes about Paul Wolfowitz or Richard Armitage may not be picked up by Leno or Letterman viewers. But Stewart seems to feel his show's format and its audience allow him to play with a broader list of names from the Bush administration.
In taking shots at the President, though, the jokes are sharp. When news broke that long-time U.S. ally Ahmed Chalabi may have been passing U.S. secrets onto the Iranian government Stewart did a long bit on June 2 attacking Bush's credibility cutting back and forth between video from the president and Stewart's comments.
STEWART (in studio): I'm sure an honorable man like our President will admit he was wrong about Chalabi and will not try to minimize the relationship our country had with him.
BUSH (on tape): My meetings with him were brief. I think I met him at the State of the Union and working the rope line. He might have come with a group of leaders.
STEWART (in studio): He sat behind your wife. Those seats don't just go to the eighth caller. You knew he was the guy feeding us all the information about Saddam.
BUSH (on tape): I don't remember anyone walking into my office and saying Chalabi says this is how it's going to be in Iraq.
STEWART (in studio): Really, you don't remember that. Because that's what happened. Didn't you read any of the articles about how the war started? I want to go on vacation again.
Stewart's digs at Kerry are less frequent. In the time we coded the Daily Show, he never once hit on one of Kerry themes. Stewart's critique of Kerry, instead, is more based along the lines of Kerry is uninspiring or a standard politician. That may not be a new critique of Kerry, but Stewart's elbows are sharp.
STEWART: Meanwhile as the Chalabi scandal unfolds John Kerry continues to use campaign speeches to swing wildly and hope something catches people's attention.
KERRY (on tape): We have to do everything we can to stop a nuclear weapon from ever reaching our shore. But that mission begins far away.
STEWART (looking away): Oh, I'm sorry were you saying something? (pause) Yes, yesterday John Kerry pandered to the crowd in South Beach Florida by dressing in local aboriginal garb for a speech highlighted by a bold assertion: Terrorists with nuclear weapons are bad.
1. "Cable and Internet Loom Large in Fragmented Political News Universe Perceptions of Partisan Bias Seen as Growing, Especially by Democrats," Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, January 11, 2004. Available online at: