Laugh Track

I’m not sure when it started, really. My earliest memory is of then-candidate Bill Clinton playing the sax on Arsenio, although I want to be very clear that I did not actually watch Arsenio. A friend told me about that. But I’m sure it all started well before that, probably on Carson or even Jack Parr.

I’m talking, of course, about political figures appearing on entertainment programs for reasons other than an interview. I’m talking about John McCain appearing on SNL a few weeks ago and making jokes about his age while appearing to give a Presidential TV address. I’m talking about HRC, Obama and John Edwards all appearing on the Colbert Report and reading prepared material and jokes.

I’m not talking about interviews. Although most of the interviews that politicians participate in on the Late Nite talk circuit are not what you’d call “hard-hitting”, they still serve a humanizing function, get exposure to a certain audience, etc. I’m fine with that.

I’m also not talking about Al Gore’s never-to-be-topped spoof of the West Wing on SNL, where after his crushing 2000 defeat he likes to pretend he’s the President. I’m not talking about that because Gore was not running for or holding an office at the time of the spoof, which makes it categorically different.

There is too much of a blur between these people as packaged brands, gloss and entertainment, and the fact that they are competing to lead the free world. I don’t want to sound all high-and-mighty, but I don’t want potential election issues to be lampooned by the participants themselves on national TV just for laughs. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a Democrat or a Republican–people seeking national office or holding national office should not appear in comedy sketches that lampoon politics or the issues in any way.

That’s what I’m talking about. Because while politics is absurd, and quite clearly needs to be the subject of many types of satire, it doesn’t really work when you have the politicians themselves doing the satire. When Amy Poehler parodies HRC, it doesn’t necessarily tear down HRC. It makes her larger than life in some ways, important enough to be parodied. When HRC herself parodies the process she has spent many years and millions of dollars on to get some laughs, where does that leave HRC or the process when the cameras are turned off?

Believe me, this trend will only continue. But watching very serious people, competing for the most important job in the world, stoop to get laughs (or not) by reading a few cue cards is awkward at best, and highly inappropriate at worst. It’s the logical conclusion of our fish-bowl, celebrity-obsessed culture-Take the most powerful person on the world, a job that is held up as the standard by which all Americans measure historical import, make them do a monologue in front of an audience on live TV, and scream “Ladies and Gentlemen, the White Stripes!”

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10 Responses to Laugh Track

  1. Nathan D says:

    Hmm, I dunno.

    The “humanize” element to all of this — the ability to see the person as someone who understands that all the pomp and circumstance of politics is, well, pomp and circumstance — is part of what makes someone eligible to “lead the free world”. In the end, it’s about leadership, and if you can’t relate at some level it’s hard to accept leadership from someone.

    There’s also an audience issue — those who watch SNL are an audience who can appreciate someone willing to admit that some part of this whole process is basically elaborate theater (or not elaborate, in some cases). This seems akin to the white house correspondents dinner, with the long-standing tradition of stepping outside the normal roles and doing some old-fashioned lampooning.

    I suppose it comes down to the role you see humor having in experiencing various parts of our world — of the human condition itself, really. If humor is an escape from or a demeaning of serious issues that’s of course very different than if humor is an alternate lens from which to comprehend — I think about things like the Daily Show and the role they play in creating _real_ understanding of what’s going on, even as they do so through _fake_ coverage of the news.

    Convincing 10s of millions of people in a nation as large and diverse as this one to vote for you is no small feat, and if a bit of self-satire helps to create the connections, the understandings, and the desires that underly our Democracy, then I say, bring ’em on.

  2. Jeff H says:

    I understand some of your distaste, but I have to agree with Nathan. There’s a difference between lampooning the issues and doing it to yourself. When the current resident of the White House made light of the search for WMDs by showing himself looking under furniture in the Oval Office (which was never aired on TV, to my knowledge, but that’s beside the point), it was fairly repulsive. When Barack Obama appeared on SNL wearing a Barack Obama mask to a costume party, however, that was pretty funny.

    I have no problem with candidates having (and displaying) a sense of humor, but I do lament the trend to the extent that the ability to deliver a punchline is becoming a prerequisite for running for president. The need to “humanize” the candidate in this way has become ingrained in the conventional wisdom of running a campaign. Thich is undoubtedly what led to Newt Gingrich’s appearance on Letterman several years back. He read the Top 10 list. He was awful. No comic timing or inflection whatsoever. This is just one case of the larger problem of viewing our candidates through the filter of television, but it’s a shame that an entire class of people may now be “too earnest” to be electable.

  3. Doug Hennessee says:

    I’m all for candidates having a sense of humor, and displaying said sense of humor at the appropriate times. Like, say, in their own speeches or appearances. But seeing elected officials lampoon themselves or the process, while sharing the stage with all our favorite SNL characters, or reading cue cards about issues of the day to get laughs, is something different.

    Bill Clinton, though I referenced the sax-playing moment above, seemed to connect just fine with people without having to be on SNL. I’m pretty sure Barack Obama has not energized record numbers of young people because he appeared on SNL; most of his momentum was well established by that time.

    I absolutely reject the argument that these types of appearances on SNL or Colbert are somehow today necessary to humanize candidates or prove their bona fides to lead the free world. It may be true that people like to see those appearances, that it makes them feel a candidate is “cool”, but so what? That doesn’t mean they’ll reject politicians who don’t appear in those contexts.

    I think it’s demeaning and awkward. Maybe you haven’t had that moment yet, watching a sitting pol or someone running for the Big Office, and feeling like they were completely out of their element and demeaning themselves for votes.

    But my guess is sooner or later you will.

  4. Becky O says:

    I wrote a paper on this once, back when I wrote academic papers…and Nixon went on Jack Parr and played the piano. He also went on Laugh-In. JFK went on Parr as well. Those were the first in the tv age to go for the laughs…but you are wearing rose colored glasses if you think these are the first candidates/presidents to pander through humor to the public. George Washington served rum and beer at his speeches. Abe Lincoln basically follwed Stephen Douglas from town to town and heckled him during his speeches, such that Douglas eventually agreed to debate the guy just to get him to shut up. Hence, our esteemed vision of the Lincoln-Douglas debates are not very accurate.

    By the way, Gore said he wore boxers when asked by Oprah. Bush likes peanut butter and jelly for lunch.

  5. Jeff H says:

    Doug, I’m with you on that last. Newt’s episode was just such a moment. I don’t even like the guy, and it was still painful to watch.

    However, one aspect of our particular style of campaign coverage is that a candidate’s personality gets a lot of scrutiny (and here I’ll refer once again to the “beer gap” Bush enjoyed over Kerry). I can’t blame a candidate who’s got a nagging reputation for being aloof or wooden for trying to kill that story with a quick laff at his/her own expense–and that’s the distinction I think is important. As soon as the joke gets pointed anywhere else, it gets unfunny really quickly.

    Is it pandering? Sure. But so is a windfall-profits tax, or a gas tax holiday.

    Is it necessary? I don’t think it’s necessary, or even effective, to appear on SNL. If you’re having such a hard time connecting with people that you need to work to convince them you’re human, I don’t see how a stiff walk-on during SNL is really going to tip the scales (“Five minutes, Governor Romney!”). At that point you need stronger medicine. Like an entire season on Big Brother.

  6. Mr. Fares says:

    I think the risk is theirs to take.

    I like it when talented people do things that they are able to do well. John McCain showed me that he’s pretty funny and understands the difference between what he can do on TV and what he wants to achieve in office. He has also been able to speak to people of his generation about their shared experiences and gotten their attention using language that does not speak to me. If he fails to connect with any of his audiences on a level that engages them they are unlikely to seek out other opportunities.

    The first time I spent more than a few moments listening to Barack Obama was on the radio after the South Carolina primary and it was more memorable than any gag he’ll subsequently do on SNL.
    Connect with your audiences, play to your strengths and take risks. That’s fine by me. Do politicians have to tap dance to get elected in this day and age? No. George W. Bush got re-elected with no problem.
    Does it indicate the beginning of the end? Are we so decadent that we only have passion for food when it amuses the palate and civil servants when they are funny? (Thanks Gaius Petronius)
    Is Mike Huckabee more likely to get my attention next time around? He seems pretty self-aware and I would have never heard more than a sound-bite form him otherwise. Is Hillary Clinton lessened in my opinion because she seems to have no self-awareness? She doesn’t seem to have any idea of what these noises coming out of her mouth convey to others. She’s just reading.

  7. Nathan D says:

    I think it’s also important to not lose sight of the fact that “we” (those who read Doug’s blog and comment frequently) are not really the target audience for these appearances — reaching the “apathetic youth vote” is critical in the age of narrow-sliver “undecideds” deciding elections, and these appearances are targeted squarely on the 18-25 segment of people who probably don’t vote but who do enjoy some late night TV time. I wonder if it makes any difference in that crowd…

  8. Charley says:

    yeah, I thought it was pretty low when Bob Dole agreed to be on The Real World…

    I will suggest that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is a different breed from what you’ve criticized. Though clearly a “fake” news show, Stewart actually interviews serious guests in a serious manner. There are, of course, cracks, but you can tell from his demeanor that he really cares about politics and really wants straight answers to the sometimes tough questions he asks. If only there were more Jon Stewarts and less Anderson Coopers (or whomever)–people who appear to ask serious questions on serious shows, but who care more about themselves than the answers.

  9. david says:

    The bob dole on the real world segment is one of my favorite SNL segments of all time…

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