July 22, 2008

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Voting Booth

By Bruce Kluger

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 intrigued by the ever-merging traffic on the election news highway, as the campaign bus bumps along just 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 who sits in the political hot seat.

Though it's tempting to dismiss the comic relief as an inconsequential sideshow, new data reveal that satire has become increasingly relevant to the vote, and that its audience is a pretty savvy group.

Required smarts

A year-long study conducted 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 requires viewers to be hip to the headlines. "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.

"Many young people are dissatisfied with the way news is delivered," Rosenstiel says. "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 "The Irrational Fear of Hope?"

Net nyuk nyuks

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 such as YouTube and Onion News Network, Web hoppers have grown accustomed to campaign news laced with joy-buzzer high jinks. In fact, embroidering headlines with punch lines could be driving potential voters to pick up their morning paper, if only to watch Stewart and company tear it to shreds that night.

Poorly executed satire is another story. Last week's New Yorker cover depicting the Obamas 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.

Even so, I hope the laughs keep coming as the comedy contingent continues to enlighten, even as it entertains. Then again, we're talking fish in a barrel here. As Will Rogers noted, "There's no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you."

Bruce Kluger, a member of USA Today's board of contributors, is co-author, with David Slaving, of the new satirical biography Young Dick Cheney: Great American. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>