Late Night Comics' Jabs Heavily Favored Obama

The GOP ticket was the overwhelming target of jokes by late night funny men, according to a recent study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

The CMPA, a non-partisan organization that studies news and entertainment media, found that from September 1st to October 24th, 2008, Leno and Letterman's opening monologues contained 475 jokes about GOP presidential nominee McCain, but just 69 about Democratic nominee Barack Obama.

The popular night-time comedian competitors, Jay Leno and David Letterman, both open their shows each night with a 5-10 minute monologue in which they put a humorous spin on the news of the day. In these monologues, the subject for ridicule ranges from the bankers on Wall Street to Paris Hilton to tainted Chinese milk. But when it comes to presidential politics, they poked more fun at the 72-year-old McCain than his 47-year-old opponent Obama, making many jokes about McCain's age.

The mainstream media have picked up on the theme of Republican-flavored jokes in the days leading up to the election. Howard Kurtz, a Washington Post media critic, pointed out this remarkable statistic in his November 3, 2008 article, “Soft Shows Hard on McCain.” ABC's Good Morning America also reported on the findings, on the morning of Election Day:


CHRIS CUOMO: Speaking of Sarah Palin, when it comes to the comedy race, she's winning, or losing, depending on how you look at it. This fall, the number of jokes about Palin on Leno or Letterman, dwarfed the number on other candidates. 276, compared to 199, and just 40 on Obama.

Cuomo played several clips of Saturday Night Live skits in which Tina Fey's impression of Sarah Palin further made his point that Palin is also a popular target for political jokes and late night humor. While the SNL jokes at Palin's expense were not included in the CMPA study, CMI noted in a recent study that the major news media have regularly featured SNL in its character assassination of Palin

McCain's age is quite an easy target for the Leno and Letterman, as the “old guy” jokes seemed to dominate the jabs. In his October 3rd monologue, Letterman joked about McCain's age by suggesting his house contains the “Clap On” lights, a product known for its long-time commercial featuring an old woman. “As a matter of fact, [McCain] applauded so much that all the lights in his house kept going on and off,” said Letterman.

Leno equally dished out the old-folk jokes on McCain with his jab on Sept 16th, even admitting that they're easy to pull off.  Here is what he said: “McCain said being on a college campus reminded him of all his old professors like Aristotle and Socrates… so much easier to write than financial jokes.”

While many of the McCain jokes focused on his age, many Obama jokes were centered on the fact hat he is a newcomer to the national stage and was still establishing his position on key issues. Senator Barack Obama was largely unknown in national politics prior to his 2004 key note address at the Democratic National Convention. Leno makes a joke about Obama's “newness” in his October 20th, monologue. “McCain would like to criticize Obama's economic plan, but nobody knows what it is yet,” he said.

Compare that to the many jokes about Palin being totally unfamiliar with life outside Alaska as Leno did in his Oct 19th opening monologue. “…The group canceled Sarah Palin saying they didn't want any politicians. Which is a shame, because this would have been Sarah Palin's first trip to the United Nations. Although to her credit, she has been to the International House of Pancakes,” Leno said.

The Democratic vice presidential pick Joe Biden was usually picked on for his hair plugs, or for his sometimes damaging, off-script remarks. Jay Leno hits both of these points in his Oct 19th monologue. “They say it's hard to keep [Palin] from going off script and making statements that hurt the campaign. It's gotten so bad, her secret service code name now? Joe Biden… And Senator Joe Biden, he lost his voice on the campaign trail yesterday. Turns out, a hair plug stuck in his throat.”

Are the jokes skewed towards McCain because Obama provides less material for comedy writers? That's what Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, suggests in an interview with Fox News. “[Barack Obama] is kind of a comedian's worst nightmare… He doesn't do anything. He doesn't fall down like Gerald Ford did. He's not filled with scandal and isn't a sexual player like Clinton was. He doesn't misspell words like Dan Quayle did. The size of his ears is about all they have to work with.”

Maybe the writers weren't paying attention.  Sen. Obama is no stranger to gaffes. Perhaps the most obvious gaffe of all was on May 9, 2008 when Obama told an Oregon crowd that he had visited “57 states.” 57, United States of America?

Also, many of Obama's policy statements while on the campaign trail provided great opportunities for comedy writers.  For instance, while speaking to a crowd at Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio on March 2, Obama suggested that anyone who finds his support for homosexual civil unions “controversial” should consult “the Sermon on the Mount.” He also said this number on the campaign trail back in July: “making sure your tires are properly inflated…could save all the oil that they're talking about getting off drilling... you'd actually save just as much!”

Erin Brown in an intern at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.