During the last U.S. election cycle, there was a lot of talk about whether viewers were getting their political knowledge from late-night comedy. The Pew Research Center, the respected U.S. polling firm, produced a poll in 2004 that said 21 per cent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 21 were getting their political information from comedy shows like The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and, back when Tina Fey was a regular cast member, Saturday Night Live. But this time around, it turns out that late-night comedy isn’t out to teach us about politics; it depends on us to know about politics. A Pew survey released this year showed that regular viewers of The Daily Show and its spinoff, The Colbert Report, tend to be more politically knowledgeable and aware than average. Asked to identify political figures like Condoleezza Rice and Gordon Brown, regular Daily Show viewers did better than people who watch NBC News, Larry King Live, or even ESPN. Meanwhile, Saturday Night Live, whose political comedy used to be limited to jokes about the way George H.W. Bush moved his hands while he talked, has become part of the world political conversation, especially but not only in the appearances of Tina Fey (now a guest star) as vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and sketches about other topics that only political junkies used to care about. TV comedy can no longer be satisfied with generic jokes about John McCain’s age (though there are still plenty of those). The writers have found themselves forced to adapt to a viewership that actually knows and cares about who Nancy Pelosi and Ben Bernanke are. Well, maybe not cares.
The traditional political joke was summed up by a 1994 episode of The Simpsons in which an electronically generated disc jockey was programmed to say: “Well, I see those clowns in Congress are at it again.” Political comedy, when delivered to a mainstream audience, needed to be as bland as possible, because TV and radio executives didn’t want to risk offending people or, worse, referring to things they didn’t know about. (A recent DVD collection of the ’60s show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour is mostly devoted to episodes that were cut or censored by CBS for actually making war and election jokes that weren’t generic.) And so for the most part, politicians and political issues were reduced to the simplest things: Jean Chrétien talked funny, Gerald Ford fell down.
But today, these shows are operating on the assumption that their audiences are following politics as closely as they do sports or celebrities. In the same episode that featured a memorable parody of the Sarah Palin-Joe Biden vice-presidential debate, SNL did a sketch about the Wall Street bailout that was in some ways even better, and nothing like the normal SNL political skit: instead of reducing the issue to its simplest terms, the sketch focused on specific policy details that even a devoted news junkie might not know about. Two of the SNL regulars played Herb and Marion Sandler, the former owners of a savings and loan who sold out to the ill-fated Wachovia bank in 2006; the sketch portrayed them as culprits in the mortgage meltdown and included a caption identifying them as “People who should be shot.” (NBC later removed this caption at the urging of nervous lawyers.) The reference was so obscure that Lorne Michaels claimed he had no idea that his writers were making fun of real people: “I, in a state of complete ignorance, thought they were characters in the piece,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I did not know they were real, up until somebody called me about it on Monday.”