Political campaigns a gold mine for late-night comedians

Earlier this political season, many comedians lamented the absence of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in the 2012 presidential race, fearing they would never be able to tap an equally rich source of humor in the stable of button-down Republican candidates. Oh, ye of little faith.

Perhaps, after Rick Perry’s already infamous debate gaffe of absent-mindedness, “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart put it best this week: “Many Republican faithful thought Perry would be the answer to their prayers. Turns out, he was the answer to ours.”

Meanwhile, Perry tried to laugh off his nationally televised blunder by delivering a Top Ten list of excuses on “Late Show With David Letterman” Thursday night. Earlier in the week, fellow candidate Herman Cain tried a similar candidacy-saving tack by appearing on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” after allegations of sexual harassment. “Have you considered hiring Gloria Allred as your attorney?” Kimmel joked. (“Let me put it this way,” Cain replied. “I can’t think of anything I would hire her to do.”)


Even before the Perry meltdown and Cain’s sexual harassment tango, America’s late-night comics began mining a rich vein of humor from the diverse lineup of GOP hopefuls, the carnival-like atmosphere that often attends their numerous debates and the tea party zealots the party has spawned. Before he meticulously eviscerated Perry on Thursday night’s “Daily Show,” Stewart went down the list of candidates in the Republican field and staggered each with an acutely delivered punch line.

The comic party, from the ever-acerbic Bill Maher to the usually tame Jay Leno, has assigned roles to most of the candidates — Mitt Romney as the soulless automaton, Newt Gingrich as the pompous, un-self-aware twit, and Ron Paul as the embarrassing uncle who crashes the family dinner. Others have evolved, as “Conan” writer Rob Kutner points out: “You know, Cain was the pizza guy and now suddenly he’s the horny guy. Perry started off as the execution guy, now he’s the dumb guy. It keeps you on your toes — which is great for comedy.”

Even “The Tonight Show’s” Jay Leno, famous for his middle-of-the-road demeanor and attempts to remain apolitical, hasn’t been able to resist jumping on the GOP-bashing bandwagon.

“Political experts say that if Greece goes under, the world banks will go under, and then the U.S. economy will go under, and this will cost president Obama the election. But Obama still has three chances to win: Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Herman Cain.”

Kutner, who wrote for “The Daily Show” during the Bush years, likened the political landscape for comedians now to a rolling buffet cart for the famished.

“Political comedians have been starved for the past few years — Obama sucks the comedy out of it. More recently, the political sphere has been bone dry — debt and the economy,” Kutner said. “Then all of the sudden, these political candidates come along and it’s like a dieter and this big feast — people’s heads start looking like ham hocks.”

A daily challenge for late-night comedy writers is feeding new jokes into the machine, say comedy writers. But this crop of candidates, with their YouTube moments and scandals, has eased their burden, they say.

“It’s a theme park for variety show writers, this group is,” said Andrew Nicholls, formerly head writer for “The Tonight Show” under Johnny Carson. “You’re looking for human foibles — and here you have ignorance, arrogance, stupidity and foolishness crammed into the smallest number of people. It’s like a Kardashian wedding minus the gifts. Unfortunately, it’s gonna last longer than the Kardashian marriage.”

The target on the GOP candidates’ back is so wide right now that the website Funny or Die launched this week a political satire microsite (“Live Funny or Die”) that will remain live through the 2012 election and parody both parties. Cain appears in four videos on the homepage, including one where he’s played by Mike Tyson singing “Imagine there’s no pizza” to the tune of the John Lennon song. It received more than 150,000 hits its first day.

“We’re not searching for ways to make jokes” said Anna Wenger, an executive producer of the site’s new political page. “There’s so many characters — and they’re so extreme. Reagan and George Bush Sr. are nothing compared to Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain. Whereas in the past, Republicans were so conservative and well-spoken. These guys are off the charts.”

Despite persistent suspicions that Hollywood is beholden to a liberal bias and the fact that most late-night writing staffs are packed with Democrats, few seem to blame them for piling on the Republican candidates.

“It’s richer fodder this cycle than in years past,” said Marty Kaplan, professor of entertainment, media and society at USC. “It may be true that the writers rooms lean liberal, but … so much of what [the Republican field] says is inherently nutty. It’s not an accident that they are often referred to in many quarters as the seven dwarfs.”

Kaplan doesn’t necessarily agree with the Hollywood liberal bias accusation — late-night hosts haven’t been shy about bashing Obama lately and typically follow the polls when choosing targets — there’s simply a plethora of material now, courtesy of the Republican candidates. “Jon Stewart called them ‘the keystone candidates.’ He’s right.”

Conservative columnist Will Cain, no relation to the candidate, agrees. “The mainstream media is liberal, that’s true. But I wouldn’t say that jokes about this Republican field reveal any particular bias, because the field is so damn atrocious. This field is absurd.”

Is it possible, even in the name of comedy, for the late-night TV circuit to go too far? Not at this stage, said “Conan’s” Kutner.

“When you get to the election, there’s a danger of bias, everyone has to make a choice. But right now it’s kind of a free for all, a carnival atmosphere. There’s all kinds of fun to be had and you’re just trying to win a couple of cheap prizes.”