For days after the Al Smith Memorial Dinner, held in mid-October at the Waldorf Astoria, the media buzzed with clips of presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama delivering hilarious routines that put many professional comedians to shame.
Obama dead panned: “Contrary to the rumors you have heard, I was not born in a manger. I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father Jor-El to save the planet Earth.”
McCain’s monologue even had Hillary Clinton throwing back her head with laughter: “When Larry King asked President Clinton a couple weeks ago what was the delay and why wasn’t he out there on the trail for Barack, Bill said his hands were tied until the end of the Jewish high holidays.
“I just know Bill would like to be out there now,” McCain continued. “Unfortunately, he is constrained by his respect for voters who might be observing the Zoroastrian new year.”
Americans of all political stripes laughed along, then asked ruefully, “Why can’t the whole presidential campaign be like that?”
Yet comedy does play a major role in every national campaign (it’s just that professional comedians are usually the ones cracking the jokes). And this year, comedy may play a deciding role as never before.
My latest book, Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century, chronicles how political comedy has replaced traditional news media as many voters’ main source of information about issues and candidates.
As the rabbi at New York’s prestigious Pratt Institute, I can assure you that, for better or worse, countless young people look to “The Daily Show” as their main (and sometimes only) source of news.
Given the program’s fourteen seasons of popularity, it’s no surprise that the line between entertainment and journalism is increasingly blurred in the mind of the average American. In a 2007 Pew Center report, people under 30 chose “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart and Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly as their favorite journalists.
The problem is, neither one of them is a journalist. They’re commentators – one comedic, the other comically angry. Young people are turning off the Wolf Blitzers and Anderson Coopers in favor of jokes and righteous indignation masked as news.
And in the ratings race, real news sources are losing. Radio host Rush Limbaugh, whose show features irreverent song parodies and comic impersonations, has more than 20 million daily listeners. That’s a larger audience than the Big Three network evening news broadcasts combined.
It’s reached the point where cable news giant CNN just handed a young stand-up comedian his very own Saturday night show: “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News” will “include interviews with news makers and reporters,” as well as the host’s outspoken comic stylings.
It’s all a vicious circle. Real news gets shallower, “The Daily Show” mocks that shallowness and earns great ratings, so real news desperately responds with… ever more slick, superficial “reportage.”
The fact remains, however, that watching “The Daily Show” informs thousands of viewers who might otherwise remain ignorant of the day’s complex, pressing (not to mention depressing) issues. Indeed, another 2007 poll found that regular viewers of “The Daily Show” scored higher in tests of political knowledge than CNN watchers.
Apparently, the program’s humor is the sugar that helps the current-affairs medicine go down.
Along with the satirical newspaper The Onion, “The Daily Show” blurs the line between fact and fiction and offers analysis through satire. Favorite targets include the conventions of modern journalism, such as the faux seriousness of wall-to-wall reports about the death of some minor celebrity or the pointless coverage of each hurricane season, when hyperventilating reporters spew as much hot air as a tropical storm.
Young people just as easily grab a free paper like The Onion instead of The New York Times to read during their commutes. Given the Times’s recent credibility problems, maybe readers figure there isn’t much of a difference.
In other words, we now have a greater breadth of news media, but far less depth. Young people have little experience with the in-depth investigative reporting their parents once demanded from major networks and newspapers. To them, Watergate might as well be the Teapot Dome scandal. The investigative reporting glamorized in “All The President’s Men” is increasingly rare. Shrinking attention spans combined with a proliferation of viewing choices would make such reporting hard for younger viewers to digest anyway.
The wall between news and entertainment began to erode after President Ronald Reagan deregulated the media in the early 1980s and radio stations no longer had to maintain expensive news departments to retain their broadcasting licenses.
Then came the demise of the unworkable Fairness Doctrine, and suddenly the dying AM band was reborn as the home of unabashedly biased conservative talk radio, whose hosts regaled listeners with outrageous takes on current events. Listeners became accustomed to being able to call in and talk back. Suddenly the nightly “one way lecture” from evening newscasters seemed old-fashioned, elitist and undemocratic.
Meanwhile, newspapers and TV networks began shutting down expensive foreign bureaus. When it comes to securing precious advertising dollars, amusement generally beats information, so news started chasing entertainment to satisfy bottom-line shareholders. The first Gulf War began the trend, when CNN turned its coverage into a prime time drama/video game. The O.J. Simpson slow-speed chase of 1994 may have been the breaking point; news outlets found that O.J. was as good as the still-nascent reality television – the “story” wrote itself, no expensive talent required.
If millions of viewers will happily watch a white van travelling the streets and freeways of Los Angeles for hours on end, producers figured, they’d sit through pretty much anything.
While all this was going on, today’s college freshman was an impressionable child. No wonder only old timers blinked when Katie Couric was awarded the coveted evening anchor chair at CBS News. Only in our mixed-up media environment could the most prestigious news bureau in television history end up being fronted by a woman who just months earlier had been giggling during cooking segments on a morning show.
Expect more of such overlap as the YouTube generation becomes the nation’s main demographic.
We’ve come a long way from the 1960s, when stand up comic Mort Sahl carried a newspaper out on stage as a prop. Such low-tech conceits now seem quaint. Yet Jon Stewart belongs to that long tradition of Jewish political satirists that includes Sahl and Lenny Bruce. (The “Daily Show” host was born Jonathan Stewart Leibowitz but changed his name because – get this nod to the history of American Jewish comedy – “it sounded too Hollywood.”)
Let’s face it: there is something very Jewish about grappling with the discrepancies of power, which is exactly what satire is all about. Jews have a history of wrestling with higher authorities. Ever since Jacob wrestled with the angel, battling with earthly and heavenly power has been at the core of Jewish identity. The Talmud itself is more an anthology of arguments than a handbook of answers, in which sages dissect every aspect of Jewish law, belief, philosophy and tradition.
Many debates in the Talmud take strange, wonderful segues with a humor all their own – some of which is intentional. For example, we read that Rabba, the eminent sage of his generation, began his classes with humorous observations. His purpose was not just to entertain but to open his students’ minds and make them into eager receptacles for wisdom.
It’s not as if Jon Stewart or his writers study Talmud between shows, but this tradition of intellectual inquiry has clearly filtered down to Jewish comedians, as has the habit of greeting adversity with bitter humor. Back in the “old country,” Jewish humor (surreptitiously) critiqued the shortcomings and absurdities of Russian rulers, first the czar and then the Soviet government. In “Fiddler On The Roof,” the rabbi jokingly prays, “May God bless and keep the czar… far away from us.”
Perennial “outsiders,” Jews possessed a unique perspective that made them natural born comedians.
As the 2008 election approached, media watchers, politicos and cultural theorists wondered if the influence of “The Daily Show” would remain as great as it supposedly was in 2004 – when, for all the program’s widely hyped popularity with a younger demographic, a Republican incumbent was nevertheless reelected by a much larger and older voting block. Then again, study after study shows that most young people would rather watch a show about electoral politics (or do just about anything else) than actually vote.
Sure enough, as the 2008 presidential race entered its final month, ratings for “The Daily Show” shot up. Its October 1 program drew 2.4 million viewers, making it the most watched night in the history of the show, which has averaged 1.8 million viewers per episode all this year. That’s up almost 30% over 2007.
(For some perspective, the vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden drew an astonishing 70 million viewers. It seems grown ups prefer the real news to the fake stuff.)
Inevitably, “The Daily Show” spawned a popular spin-off, hosted by the show’s faux conservative commentator Stephen Colbert, a bombastic, self-assured pundit in the Bill O’Reilly mode. Colbert and his on-screen persona are nominally Catholic, so Jewish jokes (written by a staff of mostly Jewish writers, naturally) often play up the character’s earnest ignorance. During Yom Kippur, Colbert unveiled his special “Atonement Hotline,” a white rotary phone with a Star of David on it, through which he granted forgiveness to callers – an awfully “Catholic” interpretation of the day’s true meaning.
Both programs assume viewers will “get” all the Yiddishisms and Jewish jokes, which give the shows a distinctive “Borscht Belt Meets Ivy League” sensibility that accounts in large part for their originality.
Colbert’s character launched a short-lived make-believe campaign for president early in the 2008 election cycle, but the fake candidate was soon outdone by reality. This year, a very real liberal commentator is staging an honest-to-goodness campaign for a U.S. Senate seat from Minnesota and he’s made some inroads (and plenty of enemies).
Former “Saturday Night Live” writer turned Democratic candidate Al Franken has been dogged by controversy regarding his personal finances and his explosive temper. Some of his most tasteless old SNL skits are being used by opponents to call his character into question. At a particular low point that sounds like a sketch he might have written, only one voter showed up for Franken’s roundtable on veterans’ issues. (To his credit, Franken gamely sat down for a one-on-one chat with the fellow.) Polls show the unlikely candidate now running neck and neck with the Republican incumbent.
Speaking of “Saturday Night Live,” that show, now in its 34th season, is enjoying its best ratings in years thanks to Tina Fey’s eerily accurate impersonations of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Fey simply parlayed a natural resemblance to Palin and an easy to imitate Fargo-type accent into a role that’s made the young actress (and the woman she’s mocking) a household name. (A Montreal newspaper even ran a serious story about Palin accompanied by a photo of Fey in full makeup, without realizing its mistake.)
The result of all the buzz? SNL’s ratings are up almost 50% over this time last year.
It will be difficult for the show’s writers and producers to top Sarah Palin’s appearance as herself on SNL’s October 18 episode. Few incidents demonstrate the non-existent line between news and entertainment as did those very post-modern ninety minutes. At one point, actor Alec Baldwin called Palin “that horrible woman” without “realizing” (wink, wink) that it was actually Palin, rather than Tina Fey, who was standing beside him. Palin responded that her “favorite Baldwin brother” was Alec’s conservative Christian sibling, Stephen.
Even the rabidly partisan Baldwin (Alec, that is) praised Palin after the show as a gracious good sport (“unlike many of the so-called professional actors we get on here sometimes.”)
“Saturday Night Live” discovered the power of the Internet this year, making the popular Tina Fey/Sarah Palin routines available on YouTube, where they quickly went viral and boosted the show’s ratings.
The great thing about the web is that you don’t have to be a billion-dollar corporation like NBC to make your own popular videos. Making full use of all the advantages the web has to offer, Obama activists launched a funny online support site for Jewish Obama backers – complete with logo-covered merchandise – called The Great Schlep. According to the website:
“The Great Schlep aims to have Jewish grandchildren visit their grandparents in Florida, educate them about Obama, and therefore swing the crucial Florida vote in his favor. Don’t have grandparents in Florida? Not Jewish? No problem! You can still become a schlepper and make change happen in 2008, simply by talking to your relatives about Obama.”
In no time, a Facebook “Great Schlep” group chalked up more than 23,000 members.
Not everyone was amused. McCain supporter and veteran stand-up comic Jackie Mason countered with an angry video of his own in response to the “Schlep” campaign.
Mason, of all people, didn’t seem to “get” the idea that “The Great Schlep” is a mockery of Jewish voting habits and familial relations, not just an amateur ad for the Democratic candidate. Mason also didn’t seem to see the irony of a man his age scolding youngsters for telling their grandparents how to vote.
So in the future, presidential and vice-presidential candidates will be expected to take their turn on SNL, just as they are now obliged to show up on staid Sunday political talk shows like “Meet The Press.”
And prepare yourself for more “duelling videos,” mainstream news reports on those videos, and other post-modern media permutations we can’t even begin to imagine.
All these developments may seem like satire come to life, but that’s 21st century comedy – and politics – for you.
Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is the Chabad emissary to Pratt Institute, where he chairs the Religious Affairs Committee. His latest book is “Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century” (Barricade Books). He is available for speaking and media engagements and can be reached at www.rabbisimcha.com.