He Who Laughs Last, Votes Best: Comedy and the Midterm Elections

Steve Gimbel
27 November 2006

Richard Nixon Forget "Soccer moms," "NASCAR dads," and "value voters," the operative bloc in the midterms were the "comedic constituents." Stephen Colbert was right to proudly proclaim that every Congressional candidate who appeared on his show "Democrat or Republican, incumbent or challenger" had been elected. The power of the laugh should not be misunderestimated.

Apathy and Irony live together in perfect harmony

Richard Nixon's appearance on Rowan and Martin's Laugh In was the first time major televised comedy was used for political PR and was ultimately as important to his career as the Checkers speech. But the world changed with the Ray-Banned Bill Clinton on Arsenio. The image created the new notion of President as Celebrity-in-Chief.

Clinton's entertainment connections projected an image of Presidential glamour the country had not seen since Kennedy's Camelot. His prime time embrace of Aretha Franklin was seen as an act of R.E.S.P.E.C.T. to the African American community as whole, a bump they also got amongst the Jewish population from the first family's relationship with Barbara Streisand -- whose social relevance was in no small part rescued by Michael Myers' "Coffee Talk" bits on Saturday Night Live.

Bill ClintonIt was in direct contrast to this that Clinton made the post-prime-time slot a necessary club in the campaign bag. Late Night and The Tonight Show were used to show that candidates had the levitas necessary for high office. "Boxers or briefs?," a question for Clinton from an MTv candidate forum, is now shorthand for the contentless fluff needed to connect with "real people" who cynically distrust anyone with ideas, much less an agenda.

This was the period where the comedic landscape was dominated by Seinfeld. The show was not about nothing; its appeal was its narcissism, its ability to take trivialities, and by embedding them in the intricacies of lived lives,  pretend that they were tragedies. To have involved the characters in authentic conflict would have been to kill the schtick -- there was never and could never have been "a very special episode of Seinfeld." It had to be axiomatic that the upper middle-class lifestyle of Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer was never in danger, regardless of whether one got served by the Soup Nazi, could dispose of muffin stumps, or celebrated Festivus.

And so it was with us. There were no real threats to our peace and prosperity. Congress could shut down the government and, like George losing his job, nothing changed. It didn't matter if the President was trying to put gays in the military like a liberal or declaring the end of the era of big government like a conservative. A semen stain on a blue dress could be elevated to the level of a constitutional crisis because we had the luxury of thinking that the most imperative issue confronting us was whether the Commander-in-Chief was master of his domain.

The comedy was sarcastic in its smugness. The worries of post-modern life were mere social constructions. Political theater was "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Existential crises were, like, so 1960s. And thus turn out for elections, especially among younger voters, approached historic lows.

The election of 2000 featured a brainy, earnest Democratic wonk; a language mangling, ne'er do well Republican; and an anti-telegenic Green repeating hypnotically "there's no difference between the parties." And it rang true because there was precious little difference between Clinton's Dick Morris guided triangulation and the Bob Dole prairie-moderate branch of the GOP.

But Gore and Bush were different -- in image. The vicious attacks on Gore came from a general cynicism among the pundocracy. Gore didn't get the joke. Nothing was at stake and Bush's playful nicknames and banter with the press showed them that he was in on the gag. We had no worries putting a gentleman's C student in the White House because the government was too big of a ship to be moved. Its inertia would carry it smoothly regardless of who was at the helm so we might as well spend the next four years with the one we'd prefer to watch Seinfeld with.

The War on Humor

"9/11 changed everything," we were told. Of course, it is not clear exactly what it changed since any change could only be interpreted as a victory for the terrorists. But there was one thing -- Letterman was off the air and it was widely declared that "the age of irony was over." Nihilism had lost its place. We were hated and hunted. Real concerns now replaced self-indulgence.

But irony's eulogy was also an unapologetically political shot across the bow of the good ship Liberal. By declaring snark to be passť, it clearly argued that this was not a time to embody any progressive traits: cleverness, nuance, or empathy. This was a time to be clear, tough, and burn with anger for revenge. Careful consideration and concern for innocent lives are exactly the sort of namby-pamby softness the terrorists relied on. They hate us for our freedoms and if you dare to use those freedoms, they will hate us even more and kill your children.

The near unanimous passage of the USA Patriot Act signaled a crack down upon political speech of all sorts. Brett Bursey was arrested in Columbia South Carolina for holding a protest sign where the President might see it. Others were led away in handcuffs for wearing unfriendly t-shirts at campaign events.

For comedy, too, there was a clear program pogrom. Ruing the decline of Saturday Night Live has become an entitlement for every post-boomer, but the undisputed low point was surely the comic version of Triumph of the Will that was SNL following 9/11. You could sense the apprehension of writers reduced to showing Martha Stewart holding up doilies with "Suck It, Osama." Weekend Update, long the smartest and sharpest part of the show, had its edge noticeably dulled. But perhaps the lowest point was the sketch, "War Party." Music played, revelers danced as occasional interruptions of news announced American military successes. The dancing would then continue with revelers singing "We got Kandahar," then "We got Jalalabad" to the tune of the radio. There was something strangely missing from the sketch -- jokes. It reeked of the desperation of writers not permitted to comment on anything more relevant than farting babies.

Bill MaherBut the Tet offensive in the war on comedy was the take down of Bill Maher. One of the final loci of humorous dissent, Politically Incorrect, prominently featured Maher's libertarian pox-wishes upon both the multi-culti lefty variety of political correctness and the puritanical correctness of the right. Maher took issue with the White House's talking point in which the 9/11 terrorists were labeled "cowards." He argued that while they are evil, it was nonsense to say that people willing to give their own lives for a cause were not brave ... especially when that very virtue was being lavished upon American airmen bombing Afghanistan well above the range of anti-aircraft artillery. The point was no different from Immanuel Kant's objection to Aristotle -- one may be virtuous in acting, but if your intentions are evil, so is the act.

But 9/11 changed everything. Maher's advertisers complained vociferously. The White House condemned him. Soon thereafter, Politically Incorrect was off the air. The "War on Comedy" had a fatality.

In the midterm elections that followed, turnout was virtually the same as the midterm election of 1988. Bucking a long-standing historical trend, Republicans, the party in control of the White House, gained several seats in Congress, a result not from a groundswell of support for the conservative agenda, but from a proportionately strong turn-out among Republican voters who cited terrorism as a major concern. The irony was dead and gone, but the apathy remained.

Katrina Opens the Floodgates

Slowly we turned. Step by step. Inch by inch. The war moved from Afghanistan to Iraq and lingered. As the administration continued to call for people to clap louder and this time really believe that things were going well, opinion polls drooped. We were staying a course that did not serve the administration's political goals as it once had.

Then Katrina and FEMA showed themselves to be horrific disasters. Juxtaposing "heckova job Brownie" with the omnipresent images undermined any remaining bit of credibility the President had. When the levees broke, the patina washed clean off the administration. Bush's Watergate was an actual gate for water.

But before the deluge, Bush tried to get out in front of the incoming comic wave. At the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association Dinner in 2004, he had a routine in which he showed slides of himself, backside in the air, looking under the Oval Office furniture, quipping, "Those weapons of Mass Destruction have got to be somewhere." The reporters and pundits sensed the old twinkle in his eye and loved it. He was bringing them back in on the joke. But outside, the joke about the President's butt would soon be turned so that the President would be the butt of the joke.

The horrible deaths of innocents, government spying and indignant recriminations against anyone pointing it out, mainstream media seriously discussing whether there are any legitimate grounds on which to object to torture ... it all seemed surreal, but eventually the seriousness of the times and the incontrovertible incompetence of the masters finally combined to give rise to countermovement, a reaction that would have a satirical edge. Much of the comic infrastructure had been neutralized, but from an upstart cable channel, came a new voice.

It was not exactly new. The Daily Show had been around. Its election coverage in 2000 was firmly entrenched in the old nihilist camp. No bit better illustrates this than Steve Carell's interview with John McCain on the "Straight-Talk Express." Carell began by asking about the Senator's favorite movie and book, only to zing him with the sort of question Tim Russert saves for Democrats. Citing several rapid-fire examples of seeming corporate conflicts of interest, he asked how McCain could be running along the high road when his past was so checkered. McCain squirmed for about a second and a half until Carell broke back into his characteristic goofiness saying he didn't understand what any of that actually meant. Hilarity ensued and McCain was let off the hook. Care was taken so that no actual politicians were harmed in the filming of these segments.

But the tone began to change. "The Most Trusted Name in Fake News" began to take the news more seriously and the show got edgier. Clips of the Vice President speaking to reporters followed by clips that put the lie to what he had just said were shown. Presidential press appearances were brutally mocked. The sharper the elbows, the better the ratings got. Young people turned to the show not just for nightly entertainment, but as a primary news source. Legitimate studies showed the program contained the same amount of substantive information as standard newscasts and that its audience as well, if not better informed, than those whose news sources were more traditional.

Steven CobertBut as hot as The Daily Show was, satirical critical mass only came with the spin-off of Stephen Colbert. So well-modeled are his rhetorical tricks that it is difficult to differentiate between the faux reality of Colbert Report and the Fox reality of O'Reilly and Hannity. At the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association Dinner in 2006, sitting only steps from the man himself, Colbert mercilessly pummeled the President. It became clear at that moment that one could now not only say that the emperor had no clothes, but now you could say it in front of the emperor.

The irony of Colbert and Stewart is a completely different flavor from that of Jerry Seinfeld. All are pregnant with political presupposition. Seinfeld's New York Jews are easily recognizable as liberal and their concerns and cultural baggage specific to the well-educated, well-off class of convenience. But gone in Stewart and Colbert is the sense that these folks could take for granted the comfortable world around them and their status in it. That unease was found in the electorate at large. The Daily Show's irony is laced with the sense that Stewart gave in his Crossfire appearance when he said with a sense more pleading than indignant, "I will not be your monkey." Dysfunctional democracy had become a very live possibility in part because the press had turned away, because they thought it all a joke.

Urgency appeared not only in the humor of the times, but was embodied in the electorate. The midterm elections in 2006 saw significantly increased turnout, especially among The Daily Show's prime demographic, youth voters. To not attribute some degree of causation to this correlation is to miss a crucial factor -- a factor not lost on FOX News who now plans a conservative version of The Daily Show -- something as likely to succeed as liberal squawk radio. Did Stewart and Colbert feed or feed off of the anxiety? Both, of course, and it was this symbiosis that climaxed in the results of the midterm elections.

"Heh, did you hear that Butthead? He said 'climax.'"

Discuss this column...

About the Author: Steve Gimbel is a philosopher at Gettysburg College. He writes The Philosophers' Playground and is the editor of Defending Einstein: Hans Reichenbach's Early Writings on Space, Time, and Motion and The Grateful Dead and Philosophy.

ePluribus Contributors and Fact Checkers: avahome, kfred, cho, JeninRI and roxy

If you like what ePMedia's been doing with research, reviews and interviews, please consider donating to help with our efforts.