Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into a Joke
by Russell L. Peterson
Jay Leno is a threat to democracy, says American Studies professor Russell L. Peterson. Every weeknight, the host of TV’s most popular late-night talk show bounds onstage in his Burbank studio and directs a barrage of pillowy jabs at our leading public officials. Boy, is John McCain old. Golly, President Bush sure is inarticulate. And did anyone in the audience forget at any point today that Hillary Clinton’s husband has libido-control issues? Leno isn’t the lone offender, Peterson says. David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and the cast of Saturday Night Live traffic in the same numbing political humor. Their jokes merely repackage things we already know—or think we know—about our leaders. Nothing’s at stake.
Peterson isn’t arguing that comedians should give politicians a free ride, said Troy Patterson in Slate.com. What Peterson would like to see more of is real political satire, an art distinguished by its desire to advance a moral argument and its willingness to take sides. Peterson, a former nightclub comic himself, has written a book “so smart, supple, and frisky that it instantly stands as required reading for every aspiring critic in the country.” Peterson’s worries about the power of softball comedy can’t be easily dismissed, said Dinesh Ramde in the Associated Press. When we think back to George H.W. Bush’s performance as president, many of us flash first to Dana Carvey’s lovable impersonation rather than to any of the senior Bush’s actual policies. Late-night comedians really do affect how we view our leaders, and the message we receive is that none is worthy of respect, or even of opposition.
“Part of the fun of Strange Bedfellows is matching up your own likes and dislikes with the author’s,” said Louis Bayard in Salon.com. His antipathy for Dennis Miller seems merely personal, but it makes sense that he applauds Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart as lonely defenders of comedy’s watchdog function. There’s a weakness in Peterson’s argument, though, that he never addresses. Leno, the supposed enemy, is also the audience favorite, while Stewart and Colbert represent only a “small and brainy” white elite. Is he implying that, since the masses choose Leno, non-elites are “just too dumb to be trusted with democracy?”