Magazine article Insight on the News

Do Late-Night Comics Have Anything Intelligent to Say?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Do Late-Night Comics Have Anything Intelligent to Say?

Article excerpt

Welcome to 21st-century late-night comedy, where anything, everything, anyone and everyone who comes to public awareness for any reason is fodder for five consecutive nights of meaningless jokes and cheap put-downs -- and then again the next week.

"This is a golden era of political humor," Jay Leno said at the recent White House correspondents dinner on an evening when Ken Starr was impersonated in drag and the president's face flashed across a screen where a dog had just finished humping a woman's leg.

Perhaps contemporary comedy is appropriately more crude and blatant, matching unimpressive wits with an increasingly less sophisticated public. Perhaps, as the TV professionals claim, they merely are giving the dumbed-down American psyche what it can handle. But what they're effectively doing is lowering the bar another notch.

There was a time when comedians served as our truth-tellers, our soothsayers, our conscience. They enhanced our perspectives and challenged our sensibilities. The viewing public was assumed to be a thinking one and, as such, was asked to think. As recently as Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, a subject wasn't beaten to death. Even in the time of Watergate, when the scandal tapered off, so did the humor. The humor itself was smarter and less frequent. Carson's monologue would contain just two or three political jokes. But he made them count. One that stayed in mind from the Carter era: "Jimmy Carter will never make it to Mount Rushmore. There's only room for one more face." Far from today's repetitious mainstay of Clinton sex jokes, Carson touched on the president's policy positions which, as the joke implies, could be two-faced.

In contrast, not only is today's Clinton sex-scandal staple of humor stale, it also is safe. Since no one was bothered enough by the man's behavior to convict him, there's nothing provocative being said here.

Meanwhile, a multitude of other scandals -- ones which do have implications for the country -- remain untapped. Of course it's possible that this is no accident. There is favoritism. There was very little humor, for example, during the recent primary season -- on any of the shows -- about media darling John MCCain. One would think that everyone in the world is an idiot except for McCain. Why? Was it because he was almost the Republican spoiler? Surely there was something to be said about the man's temper or some insensitive joke about his wife's personal problems that we simpletons could appreciate. …

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