In retrospect, we knew we were done for the night Johnny Carson said George McGovern sounded like Liberace.
Those of us working on McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign staff had seen some highs and lows: the extraordinary campaign of primary victories that won him the Democratic nomination; the screwed-up party convention and crash dive when his vice presidential candidate Tom Eagleton was forced to withdraw after revelations of electroshock therapy.
But Johnny Carson making that joke on "The Tonight Show" was the final nail in the electoral coffin. On top of everything else, he was right--George did sound like Liberace.
It wasn't the first time TV comedy had an impact on the nation's politics. Four years earlier, Richard Nixon had emitted an incredulous "Sock it to me?" on the hit show "Laugh In." Millions of Americans thought this proved he was a regular guy -- enough, perhaps, to have provided his narrow margin of victory (Hubert Humphrey, foolishly, had turned down a similar invitation from "Laugh In." Of course, in those days, he still referred to our medium as "the television.").
Now we see Jon Stewart serving up Jim Cramer and the rest of CNBC as rotisserie chicken for their coverage of the financial crisis, David Letterman taking revenge after John McCain cancels an appearance to do an interview with Katie Couric (and lies about it), Tina Fey perfecting a spot-on imitation of Sarah Palin. All of these impacted politics, too. What's different today is that not only is TV comedy commenting on and affecting the news it has become a source of news.
So what does comedy tell us about the truth that the news can't? That's what we're talking about in Washington Friday evening. Stay tuned.
See the show "Writers Speak! A Potentially Regrettable Evening with WGA Comedy Writers," this Friday May 8th, 7:00 pm - 9:30 pm at Washington DC's Newseum. More WGA blogs about the event available here.
Follow Michael Winship on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MichaelWinship