October 30, 2008

Late-Night TV Satires and the 2008 Election

by Anna Waterfield

Since the official beginning of the presidential campaign several months ago, John McCain and Barack Obama seem to be forefront on everyone's thoughts, including that beloved collection of late-night TV satirists. With the crucial day less than a week away, any show dealing with political satire is guaranteed to center the majority of its jokes on the upcoming election. Why? Because there are people like newfound celebrity vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin who make it almost too easy!

Anyone who considers him or herself an avid fan of political satire, however, has surely noticed the dearth of reference to Sen. Obama (D-IL) or Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE). According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, from the beginning of September through the end of last week, the Republicans were the target of 475 jokes just by Jay Leno and David Letterman. Obama and Biden, on the other hand, fell victim only 69 times. Throughout the month of September, John Stewart and Steven Colbert collectively joked about the Republicans 211 times, as opposed to a meager 29 jokes about Obama and Biden. That means the Republicans have been ridiculed about 7 times more frequently than the Democrats.

This could be for various reasons. The first possibility is that the Democratic ticket is a relatively dull one. In contrast to Palin's glitzy glamour-queen folksiness, Biden is just another aging Caucasian man in politics. When it comes to choosing who to spoof, Gov. Palin (R-AK) is clearly the more fascinating subject.

Another possibility, is that there simply is not a lot to make fun of about the Democrats . For the most part, Obama has consistently come off as calm, cool, and collected. The weak link in this argument, however, is Biden and some of his less-than-impressive remarks that have been passed up by the media vultures. If Palin had made Biden's recent comment, "Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television" after the stock market crash in 1929 (Herbert Hoover was in office and television did not yet exist) we would never hear the end of it; however, since it was Biden who made the slip-up, we've hardly heard it at all.

The logical explanation for why political satire has strayed away from the Democrats this election, is the race issue. A good majority of comedic writers are left-leaning Caucasians that in their own self-interest might be refraining from making even a reference to Obama's race for fear of a public backlash. A joke with only a mild racist connotation has the potential to be blown out of proportion or put in the wrong context.

Has this tendency to bash McCain and Palin helped the Democrats? It's a good possibility. Late-night "fake news" shows are more entertaining than regular news, so at least some fragment of the American public is likely to choose John Stewart over Anderson Cooper, and thus only see the political campaign through the eyes of those who consider the McCain camp an easy target. For instance, anyone who has watched Saturday Night Live recently knows that Tina Fey's impression of Palin makes her out to be more of a joke than an actual candidate for the vice presidency of the United States. One major upside, if the Republicans do win the election is that we'll have a very entertained nation for the next four years. Otherwise, comedians are going to have to learn how to toe the fine line between appropriate and inappropriate when dealing with issues of race as they adapt to an Obama presidency.

(Political graphic by Frederick; you can see more of Frederick's graphics at the blogs Guys from Area 51 and MCCS1977. This graphic is made available through a Creative Commons license. To see one of the latest satires from NBC's Saturday Night Live, please check below.)

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