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Laughter and the '08 Campaign


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In discussing the 2008 election last week, Jon Stewart cracked jokes about orphans, Viagra and prehistoric monsters.

God, I love politics.

As someone who moonlights as a satirist, I'm often intrigued by the ever-merging traffic on the election news highway, as the campaign bus brigade bumps along just barely ahead of the tailgating funny cars. This year especially, the laughter is welcome, from The Daily Show's smart and smirky antics to Stephen Colbert's spoofy "truthiness." And Saturday Night Live continues its 33-year legacy of tossing a whoopee cushion beneath anyone -- from pol to pundit -- who dares to sit in the political hot-seat.

While it's tempting to dismiss the comic relief as an inconsequential sideshow targeted at casual viewers looking for an easy laugh, new data reveal that political satire has become increasingly relevant to the 2008 vote, and that its audience is a pretty savvy group.

A year-long study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that 16% of Americans regularly watch Comedy Central's late-night follies, and that The Daily Show in particular "not only assumes, but even requires" viewers to be hip to the headlines.

"We concluded that the show is much funnier if you know the news," project director Tom Rosenstiel told me. "They're playing to the cognoscenti, and the jokes are designed to make you think more about the stories."

To be sure, satire is as old as politics itself, and today's voters are expected to toggle easily between reading a sober op-ed about a campaign and watching a faux-news analyst squirt seltzer down the candidates' pants. Yet the new study suggests a growing conscientiousness among younger Americans, a demographic too often dismissed as uninformed and apathetic. And a lot of these voters, notes Rosensteil, are angry about the news media.

"Many young people are dissatisfied with the way news is delivered," he says, "so journalists are often as much a target of the satire as the stories themselves. When the youth see flaws in the traditional media, they tune in to The Daily Show. One complements the other."

And who can blame viewers for wanting a little cavorting with their reporting? After all, what sounds more fun: combing through a dense and distressing story about, say, Fox News' efforts to foment distrust of Barack Obama, or watching The Daily Show's "Baracknophobia" segment, a biting rehash of the bash-fest, pitch-perfectly subtitled "An Irrational Fear of Hope?"

Satire on the Internet has also played a significant role in attracting younger voters to the electoral process. Thanks to the exploding wave of clever mash-ups and parodies on sites like YouTube and The Onion News Network, web-hoppers have grown accustomed to campaign news laced with joy-buzzer high jinks. In fact, embroidering headlines with punch lines may be driving potential voters to pick up their morning papers, if only to watch Stewart and company tear it to shreds that night.

Poorly executed satire, however, is another story. Last week's New Yorker cover depicting Barack and Michelle Obama as terrorists was intended as wry commentary, but landed with a thud as racist and unfunny. Ditto John McCain's joke about "killing Iranians" with cigarettes, which led (real) satirist Andy Borowitz to whip off a column titled, "McCain Issues Top Ten Funniest Ways to Kill Iranians." Message to McCain: Leave the gags to the pros.

Still, as we move toward the conventions, I hope the laughs keep coming, as the nation's comedy contingent continues to enlighten, even as it entertains.

Then again, we're talking fish in a barrel here. As Will Rogers once noted, "There's no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you."

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This essay ran in USA Today on July 22, 2008.

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Bruce Kluger is the co-author, with David Slavin, of the new satricial biography, Young Dick Cheney: Great American.