So, the late-night comedians are back (or coming back). For many of us, there are warm places in our hearts and minds for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I think of the darkest times of the post-9/11 Bush years, and how I needed Jon Stewart and his writers to read the news first, digest it, and then present it to me in some way that kept me from going in the garage and ending it with some Luther and lungs full of carbon monoxide. There was just no surviving the Bush Administration without them.
Today, many of us are caught up in the magic of Obama's Iowa win. Magic that was not just a movement of people across a room, physically supporting the candidate, but movement inside of people's hearts--people choosing to risk, choosing to go for the big dream, and not just settling for "safety" (in quotes, because with negatives like hers, when was Hillary Clinton ever the safe choice?). Obama supporters didn't let fear get in the way of voting for whom they thought was the best candidate for the job.
But earlier this week, I saw Mrs. Clinton do the opening bit for Letterman's return. She joked that all good things must come to an end--and I wondered, is she right? Could there be a correlation between this mass experience of expansive possibility, and the fact that the late-night shows have been in re-runs? That for these past weeks we didn't dream these tender dreams by day (Is this even possible in America? Is he as great as we think he is?), only to turn on the television at night and have them deflated by the repetition of sometimes deft, sometimes hack jokes?
Yes, jokes are oxygen--without them we (or at least, I) would die. But the drumbeats of the network monologues are rarely great comedy. They hit the same personality traits over and over, going for the same easy joke, again and again and again (see Monica, the Clinton years, 1998-present). For the rest of his candidacy, are we going to have to witness Obama and his aspirations beat down by the sledgehammers of clowns?
I spoke about this with my friend Andrew, who has been a long time Obama supporter since the day he spotted him exit a car on Capitol Hill, and was just struck by the way he walked (like wow, there's a man with presence). He argues that right now, other than the idea of "Obama the Messiah" it's hard to find an comedic inroad with Obama without sounding like mildly racist. However, I would argue that the "messiah" jokes, repeated, night after night, could be pretty dreamkilling. If someone stands up and tries to appeal to our better angels, and actually orchestrate something en masse, it's easy to derail this man with reminders to us that yes, he is just a man, go sit back down... the benevolent spell broken, the movement stopped cold.
I worked in the Clinton White House, as intern and staff, for 4+ years, witnessing every day the ways he was ridiculed and belittled by both comics and opponents. However, you don't have to be ex-staff to have visceral memories of turning on the TV at night and hearing the same story over and over: Clinton is a cad. Or, he's a slippery hillbilly. And while Clinton is exceptional at giving comedians material, the fact is, he is also is a brilliant, beautiful full universe of a man. To constantly have him reduced down to these stick-figure cartoons is a truly violent thing, a way of--with a (million!) cuts--keeping a great man from doing the most with his talents.
This holds true for Mrs. Clinton. Joke after joke after joke.
[I won't even get started on the verbal violence done to Monica Lewinsky. As far as I'm concerned, all those comedians owe her checks, big-time, the way they skated through those monologues on her back, night after night. I don't even know if you could put a proper restitution number on the amount of humiliation and ridicule she has suffered at the hands of (well, us)]
I realize that if Obama is the nominee, the late night comics will be the least of his worries. But there's just no denying that Americans pay attention to the comic storylines, and the comic caricatures, of our political figures. And storylines, repeated ad nauseam, take on lives of their own. They become the candidate we see when we hear their name. And they often have the effect of making us think that all politicians are deeply flawed, suspect human beings, and there's little we can do to effect change--the exact opposite message of Obama and his candidacy.
Here's to our comedians and late-night writers once in a while saying no to the easy kills, reaching for something fresher--and funnier.