USA Today, 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 often intrigued by
    the ever-merging traffic on the election news highway, as the
    campaign bus brigade bumps along just barely 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 anyonefrom
    pol to punditwho dares to sit in the political hot-seat.

    While it’s tempting to dismiss the comic relief as an inconsequential sideshow
    targeted at casual viewers looking for an easy laugh, new data reveal that political
    satire has become increasingly relevant to the 2008 vote, and that its audience is a
    pretty savvy group.

    A year-long study 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 even requires” viewers to be hip to the

    “We concluded that 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. And a lot of these voters, notes
    Rosensteil, are angry about the news media.

    “Many young people are dissatisfied with the way news is delivered,” he says, “so
    journalists are often as much a target of the satire as the stories themselves. 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 “An Irrational Fear of Hope?”

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

    Poorly executed satire, however, is another story. Last week’s New Yorker cover
    depicting Barack and Michelle Obama 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.

    Still, as we move toward the conventions, I hope the laughs keep coming, as the
    nation’s comedy contingent continues to enlighten, even as it entertains.

    Then again, we’re talking fish in a barrel here. As Will Rogers once noted, “There’s
    no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.”

    (Illustration by Sam Ward, USA TODAY)