Are We Having Fun Yet?

Plenty of pointed -- and sometimes partisan -- presidential campaign humor is out there for anyone who wants to laugh. Or not laugh. Or remain undecided.

What's So Funny About This Election?

Cover Story

October 31, 2004|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

In 48 hours, give or take 15 minutes, we will elect the next president of the United States -- unless it's too close to call Tuesday and we have to wait a month or so and everyone will blame Florida again and we'll spend the next four years cranky and bitterly divided as the war in Iraq drags on.

Call us starry-eyed patriots.

But let's say the election will be decided the old-fashioned way -- by a duel. Thus, another season of campaign politics and humor will end and not a bumper sticker, blog or animated cartoon too soon. No more talk of using stem cell research to one day develop a public sense of humor for John Kerry. The "Bushisms" industry might still be in the calendar business, but we probably won't have Jon Stewart and Tucker Carlson kicking each other around anymore. Those moments happen only once during an election year.

And let us not ever forget Poland.

There haven't been a lot of national yuks lately, so serious times have called for serious humor. Perhaps never before has political humor so divided us or, at least, tipped our partisan hands. While most people would agree that bayoneting Bush yard signs isn't funny, some might chuckle over the fact a Missouri man put his vote up for sale on eBay. Bidding started at $25 and ended when said man was taken to court.

Did you think John Kerry's "marrying up" line was funny? What about Bush's "Need some wood?" The sense of this election's humor has mirrored the Red vs. Blue, Retro vs. Metro, Al Franken vs. Rush Limbaugh, Red Sox vs. Yankees tenor of a polarized-bear of an electorate. The country has become its own comedy central, and everyone's working blue -- and red.

"The humor is much angrier and confrontational," says columnist Dave Barry, who has written fewer political columns than in previous election years. The climate is less hospitable, he says. People are ready to pounce if they think your humor reveals your party affiliation. In previous elections, "you could kind of laugh at both sides. Every joke wasn't so venomous," Barry says.

Remember the old days -- not the old, old days, when Richard Nixon appeared on "Laugh-In" in 1968 -- but the newer old days, when Dan Quayle misspelled "potato" and Michael Dukakis' military headgear fed comedy writers for months? After his defeat in 1996, Bob Dole proved to be a witty guy -- who knew? Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1988, was generally believed to have been born humorless. We called to fact-check.

"Obviously I know nothing about winning presidential elections, so I don't know how to help you," Dukakis said from Boston's Northeastern University, where he teaches public policy. In one line, he might have proved our perception wrong. But Dukakis says he was too cautious then, too worried his humor would come out the wrong way.

"I wish I had a nickel for every time someone came up to me after the election and said, 'You're nothing like the guy we watched on TV.' "

But that's what we do -- we watch guys on TV who want to be president. We saw Bill Clinton play the sax on Arsenio Hall's show. In 2004, you didn't want to miss Kerry's appearance on The Daily Show, although it proved forgettable. Then during an unforgettable appearance on Crossfire this month, Jon Stewart called Tucker Carlson a "political hack" and then referred to him by the vice president's first name. It's a common mistake.

But this episode prompted news guy Bob Novak to say that fake news guy Stewart isn't funny, which prompted Stewart to say he is funny, in fact. Then, Sting announced that while he would vote for John Kerry, the man doesn't have a sense of humor. A Gallup Poll then showed that most Americans don't think Sting is funny at all. Only the Sting poll didn't really happen.

And oh, what a tangled web of humor we have spun this election year. There's a Pleasure Boat Captains for the Truth Web site to counter those Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Maybe you've checked out bushrelativesforkerry.com ("Because blood is thinner than oil!") or www.youforgotpoland.com., which was launched after Bush reprimanded Kerry for not acknowledging allied Poland. The site, by the way, sells "You Forgot Poland" T-shirts and coffee mugs.

"Political humor has really taken root on the Web. It has a real partisan agenda behind it, which is a new development," says Daniel Kurtzman, editor of politicalhumor.about.com -- a gatekeeper of a very serious industry. "Web humor ranges from really polished and well-conceived parodies to rather juvenile and idiotic humor." (Never underestimate the market for idiotic humor.)

Kurtzman believes Web humor seriously started with the Florida recount of 2000 and those two immortal words: hanging chad. Also remember, SNL's political humor was never sharper than that season with Will Ferrell and Darrell Hammond as debating candidates George "Strategery" Bush and Al "Lockbox" Gore.

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