Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Political `Joke': Comedy It's Not Punsters Dumb It Down to Reach Their Audience

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Political `Joke': Comedy It's Not Punsters Dumb It Down to Reach Their Audience

Article excerpt

`DOESN'T Pat Buchanan look like the kid you went to school with, the one who was always beating up the kid who looked like Steve Forbes?"

Badda bing. Another "Late Show," another riff from a Letterman monologue. Dave is ready for a season of political jokery.

Same as it ever was. But in election year 1996, as the primary season is now under way, the state of political humor is not what it was in the 1960s and '70s, when Dick Gregory, Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce attacked serious issues with wit in the clubs; Vaughn Meader and David Frye sold millions of albums by impersonating presidents, and Johnny Carson's nightly monologue was as important to the TV age as Will Rogers' musings were to the Depression Era.

"It has to do with the climate of entertainment" today, says Paula Poundstone, who has done comic coverage of the political conventions for "The Tonight Show." "What's popular in the clubs nowadays, only the stupidest and most common-denominator stuff goes over. We're not attracting the brightest crowds, or if they do come, they don't have their thinking caps on, because it's not what they're expecting."

Bill Maher, whose "Politically Incorrect" show on the Comedy Channel tackles many issue-oriented topics, feels comics like Gregory and Sahl "we re purely political, and I would not even attempt that. Those guys really talked from the newspaper, Mort Sahl especially. Nowadays, voters are not as interested in the workings of their government."

It's not that there isn't any political humor anymore - "Saturday Night Live," the late-night variety shows, Dennis Miller on HBO and other venues regularly skewer our elected leaders. But since Carson retired in 1992, neither David Letterman nor Jay Leno has taken his place as America's unofficial high priest of political comedy. And the rules of the game have changed.

Today's younger audiences, weaned on TV and live shows, have come to expect frat-boy humor centered on bodily functions. "If they want nuance today, they'll read a book," says Will Durst, whose act is heavily political.

Also, many politicians - creatures of pollsters and image consultants - have been so blanded out they're hard to lampoon. …

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