No Joke: Politics In The Era Of Late Night Reruns

Leno, Letterman, O'Brien and the rest of the late-night comics and hosts have all gone "dark" ever since the writers' strike began, leaving us with nothing but endless reruns to watch during the wee hours. If this goes on for the next two months, what effect will this have on politics during the crucial presidential primary season?

I have to admit, I didn't come up with this idea myself. I heard it as an offhand comment on one of the news shows (PBS' News Hour, I think) -- that if the strike went on, the candidates will all get a "free pass" on any amusing foibles during the campaign because the late night shows were on hiatus. The person who said this wasn't serious, or at best only half-serious, but it got me to thinking. What if this does have a major effect on politics? What effect would it have, and would it be a good thing or a bad thing?

What if (insert crescendo music here for effect -- dom Dom DOM!!) it already has had an effect?

I was alerted today to a new Gallup Poll which has President Bush's approval rating up six points, to (for him) a whoppingly impressive 37 percent. The Washington Post's online political guru Dan Froomkin pointed this out in a live online chat today, and asked why people thought Bush was up in the polls (his low in Gallup was 29 percent, a few months back). Various plausible reasons were given by Dan's commenters -- the impression the "surge" is working in Iraq, the NIE possibly convincing people that Bush won't attack Iran, the fact that Bush isn't compromising with Congress (whose approval rating, at 22 percent, is lower than Bush's), the recent peace conference, Republicans taking a good look at their presidential candidates and realizing that maybe Bush isn't so bad after all, and even the BarneyCam Christmas video (with -- you can't make this stuff up -- a cameo from "Bush's poodle," Tony Blair).

While any of these, or any combination of these may be the real reason for Bush's uptick in the polls, or even any other reason out there (perhaps it's just the holiday season and Americans are feeling more forgiving?), it seems to me that the bump in Bush's popularity began right around the time the television writers decided to strike. And the late night shows were the first hit by it, since they thrive on the immediacy of their "live" format. Their jokes have to be up-to-date or else they'll lose their audience to the other shows. But now nobody has up-to-date jokes. And politicians aren't being raked over the coals on a nightly basis. Could this be contributing to Bush's bounce?

Now, I'll admit this is making a lot of stew from one oyster, but you've got to remember that not everyone is like us. I say this confidently, since I openly admit that I'm a political junkie, and since I know you are too -- by the very fact that you're reading this. But people in the blogosphere sometimes forget that there's an enormous amount of Americans out there that simply don't pay much attention to news or politics. An astounding amount of people regularly use Leno and Letterman as their sole source of news. They don't read newspapers, they don't read the Huffington Post or Drudge, they don't look at YouTube, they don't watch television news shows, they just don't pay any attention to it at all. But they do tune in late night to hear some jokes about what's going on in the world today.

And they have all been cut off from their prime source of information, and are now floating lost in the morass of reruns.

Take one example of this effect. Remember, late night comics mine the news for funny items, and scandals they can build jokes upon. So their "filter" for what "is" and what "is not" news is a lot different than the one used by Brian Williams or Katie Couric. Meaning the juicy and joke-inspiring stories are just withering on the vine out there. Take, for example, the new revelations in the Larry Craig saga -- not only did a newspaper print interviews with more men who claimed they had had sex with Senator Craig, but one of them was the same one that is (coincidentally?) promoting a book about having sex with "Pastor" Ted Haggard.

In normal times, this would be a veritable gold mine for late night material. Leno and Letterman would have had a field day over it, cracking jokes for two weeks running on the subject (and all its humorous tangents). Everybody would have been talking about it, and the jokes at the watercooler would have echoed across the land.

Without the late night shows? It was a one-day story -- if that.

That's a big difference. So maybe it's not just a coincidence that Bush's numbers are up now that he's free to mangle the English language at will (without the endless clips running nightly of him doing so). And now that whatever scandal that comes along won't be parsed the very same night into a knee-slapper -- designed for comprehension by as broad as possible an audience.

Assuming that there might be something to this (and that I'm not just writing my own comedy here) brings me to a bigger question: how will this affect the primaries? Due to the insanely compressed presidential primary schedule this year, the entire primary season may last exactly one month -- from January 3rd to February 5th. This is right around the corner. Since the strike shows no signs of ending any time soon, it's certainly possible that late night will remain dark until February. What would this mean?

There is a pessimistic and an optimistic way of looking at this. Pessimistically, this means that a certain percentage of the American electorate will not be getting any news about the candidates at all (or nothing more than campaign ads seen during other programs). And I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that there's a heavy overlap between this group and what I call the "mushy middle" of the electorate -- the voters who don't decide which candidate to vote for until the last minute (these voters often swing elections, making them much more important than they seem at first glance). Without the tradition of making fun of the candidates for stupid things they're saying on the campaign trail, these voters will be even less informed than usual. This may give a huge advantage to whoever wins in Iowa and the other early states, because theirs may be the only names that filter through to these voters.

Or it could mean something entirely differently. Let's think optimistically, instead. Because this mushy middle isn't getting any information whatsoever about the candidates, they are less inclined to actually go vote. This is an awfully "soft" group anyway when it comes to voting records -- they often vote because of a hazy sense of civic responsibility more than through any party affiliation or interest in politics. So maybe a bunch of them stay home election day. This could lead to lower-than-expected turnouts, and it could lead to some surprises for people who put too much faith in polling.

But, remembering that we're being optimistic here, maybe the ones who don't stay home will realize there's a void in their understanding of the candidates. Maybe some of them realize that without the late night jokes, they need to dig a little deeper to figure out who to vote for. Maybe they tune in the news for a change. Maybe they pick up the odd newspaper. Or even, maybe they get online and start searching for funny YouTube moments from the politicians, to satisfy their need for political humor.

However it happens, this could be a good thing, resulting in a more informed squishy middle of the electorate than normal. Starved of Leno and Letterman, maybe they'll look elsewhere and show up on election day actually knowing who to vote for and why. This, it should be noted, may also lead to returns that the polls didn't foresee.

It's hard to predict the outcome of such an intangible as the absence of the court jester in our national debate, during the most important month in our four-year political cycle. Some may scoff that it won't have any effect whatsoever. I'm not sure exactly how it will play out myself, but I bet it will indeed have an effect, whether measurable by polling or not. And I'd be willing to bet that the first candidate who gets caught saying or doing something monstrously funny (but not otherwise newsworthy) -- and who is thus spared the two-week lambasting by the late night comics -- will agree with me that's it's "no joke" in more ways than one.


Chris Weigant blogs at: