As dozens of comics descend on Boston for the Democratic National Convention this week, they arrive at a curious time: More than ever, political comedians are aligned with particular parties and specific candidates. In a business once proud to be driven by equal-opportunity offenders, there's a growing split on the laugh landscape.
The traditionalists argue that real comics don't play party politics, they make fun of everybody. The new crowd--call them the politicomics--are looking for more than snappy lines. They want to win in November. That means shouting on cable talk shows, performing in private fundraisers, and even using the stand-up stage as a bully pulpit.
Dennis Miller, the former "SNL" news anchor, excoriates John Kerry nightly on his CNBC talk show and rallies for President Bush with Las Vegas crooner Wayne Newton. Al Franken, fresh off his best-selling book "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right," contemplates a run for the Senate as he trashes conservatives around the dial. Janeane Garofalo and Worcester native Sam Seder host "The Majority Report," a program on the liberal radio network Air America, which will broadcast live from Boston this week. "Comedy was born of anarchism, and now it's moved into advocacy," says Mark Katz, 40, who spent eight years writing humorous speeches for former President Bill Clinton and recently published "Clinton & Me: A Real Life Political Comedy."
Comedians, known for pushing boundaries of language and taste, have generally stayed away from political races.
Until now, most comedians seemed to subscribe to the Mark Twain school: Mock everyone. "Suppose you were an idiot," Twain wrote. "And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."
The idea is to never forget your purpose. Make people laugh.
"There's nothing deadlier than a serious comic," adds Will Durst, a California-based comedian. "I understand using celebrity to change the way people think, but a comic's responsibility is to make people laugh out loud, on purpose, against their will."
Lewis Black, a regular on Comedy Central's "Daily Show," has been asked to show up for candidate rallies. He won't. He also has a personal policy to never give money to campaigns.
"My feeling is that whoever is in charge, I want him out," Black says.