By Rod Bastanmehr
In the days before the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama and John McCain face a historic head-to-head battle for the support of America. But it seems that the only votes seriously lacking for the Obama camp are in the late-night comedy polls.
According to the Nelson Rating Scan, Sarah Palin’s Oct. 18 appearance on “Saturday Night Live” (SNL) garnered the show its highest ratings in nearly 14 years. John McCain’s appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman” grabbed the most viewers for the show since 2005. Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” has seen a 28 percent jump in popularity since last year, with an average of 2 million viewers per night.
But amid the hype surrounding these political/comedic hybrids, the absence of Obama-based comedy has been conspicuous to everyone from his critics to his cheerleaders. With Obama appearing remarkably unscathed during the remaining legs of this election, the question must be asked: is he getting his most “elitist” treatment from the late-night comedy dynamos?
Riko Wynn, a political culture theorist and freelance writer, sees the reason for this oversight as a combination of Obama’s historical and ideological significance.
“Frankly, we’re dealing with something completely foreign,” Wynn said. “There are many layers to why Obama is such a compelling character to follow. You look at political figures in the past, and all of their most fascinating aspects seemed to be fair game. … With [Obama], it seems as though everyone feels the need to closet their excitement.”
One reason for this tiptoeing may be Obama’s race. As a black candidate, he has delved into uncharted territory, and the same can be said for comedians. Since no black presidential candidate has ever reached the height that Obama has, and since the majority of television’s most popular satirists are white, they must be wary of what their comments may do to their own careers.
“Most comedians or satirists don’t want to jeopardize their careers or popularity by even coming close to making themselves vulnerable to allegations of being racist or prejudiced,” said Janet Alexander, a second-year at Pitzer College and member of Students for Obama.
Wynn said these are uncharted waters for both Obama and the satirists, but that they are uncharted in a way that extends beyond the issue of race. Obama’s race has, thus far, served as a sort of proverbial elephant in the room, creating both a fury of excitement and a constant need to avoid acknowledgement. Yet, the unavoidable truth remains that a majority of televisions most popular satirists have a wire act of their own to worry about, considering most are white and swing to the left. Wynn said that he thinks Obama is left out of most jokes because of his historical importance.
“[Obama] is representing this shift in ideology,” Wynn said. “People believe in change again. That’s something very important to hold on to right now. The fact is that most [satirists] simply aren’t willing to compromise that.”
Joshua Alston, an entertainment writer for Newsweek whose work has recently focused on politicians in the media, also believes that the comments satirists make carry more weight than is sometimes acknowledged.
“If SNL says Hillary Clinton was being unfairly picked on in the primary debates, then it’s so,” Alston said.
As Alston and Wynn noted, satirists like Jon Stewart and the writers of SNL have a tendency to dominate more than just the cultural zeitgeist. They could argue that their goal is simply to make viewers laugh, but swaying public opinion is often an unavoidable consequence of staying relevant.
A few humorous jabs at Obama — perhaps targeting his overconfidence, which some argue veers too close to arrogance at times — may not be worth deflating hopes that Obama could be the leader this nation needs. The country feels the ramifications of two wars and an economic depression, and it may be that Obama holds too much weight on his shoulders to handle any comedic poking from the satirists, regardless of how fun it may be.
“The U.S. is in shambles after eight years of the Bush Doctrine, administrative tyranny, and the current economic crisis,” Alexander said. “People are desperate for relief and change. A lot of livelihoods are counting on Obama to save them, and that’s no laughing matter.”