By Ann Oldenburg – USA Today – Aspen, Colorado – March 8th, 2004

      The timely topic of debate in this chichi ski resort is in a sense shaping up like recent polls that show Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and President Bush neck-and-neck in the presidential race: There is no presumptive winner in the punch line tally, either.

      “In my business, Bush is the gold standard,” says political cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who regularly skewers the president in his Doonesbury comic strip. “We’d be crushed if he lost.”

      His belief is that comedians on the left who crack jokes about the right have it easier right now than their counterparts on the other side of the aisle. “That’s why Dennis Miller has had trouble getting a little traction,” Trudeau says, referring to the recent convert to conservatism and his new MSNBC nightly cable show. “What’s he going to do? Go after the Democrats? They’re not in power. They’re so not screwing up the world the way the Republicans are.”

      On the other hand, notes Time magazine White House correspondent Matthew Cooper, now that the primaries are over, it’s open season on Kerry. “He is a target. He told one of my colleagues that he thought of himself as a rebel. John Kerry’s idea of rebellious is having red wine with fish.”

      What’s a serious political journalist such as Cooper doing in Aspen, trading quips with the likes of Trudeau and Drew Carey? It’s all for laughs — and yet another example of the intertwining of pop culture and politics — at one of the entertainment industry’s annual fun winter getaways.

      The U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, which ended Sunday, is a showcase for rising comics and a gathering place for veteran comedians. It’s also a great party, five days of expense-account dinners and après ski drinks round the roaring fire at the St. Regis Hotel, festival headquarters, for the Ugg-boots-and-shearling-coat crowd.

      The “Who’s Funnier” seminar was one of the big draws, although maybe not as big as the program Sarah Jessica Parker did with Sex and the City writers or Larry David on the Curb Your Enthusiasm panel. But, for a session not based on a hit HBO series, it did provide a raucous platform devoted to arguments about humorous politicians and political humor.

      In a presidential year, much of the funniest stuff twists to the political polls — and pols — though who gets mocked often depends less on personal preference than targets of opportunity. At the moment, Democrats are “dull — they’re not doing anything,” says syndicated talk radio show host Phil Hendrie.

      It’s all about attacking the status quo, says Stephen Colbert, senior correspondent for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. “Who is more mockable? The right,” he says. “It’s always more fun to attack the guy at the top.”

      Says actor, writer and stand-up comic Carey, “A lot of Democrats are puffed up and self-righteous — ‘We’re here to save you’ — and that’s easy to make fun of. And the Republicans are, ‘Oh, we know what’s moral and you don’t, and we’re going to protect you and your family,’ and you can knock them down real easily.”

      Comedians such as Miller, a Bush supporter, and liberal comedians such as Stewart are building shows and careers around political humor. Late-night comedy/variety spots such as Jay Leno’s Tonight Show are now regular stumping spots.

      It works for both sides: Comedians get laughs, and politicians get a chance to loosen up. And it works for both parties. But deciding which side is winning the humor war in this election year is one race that’s just too tight to call.

      “I just don’t think there is a ‘funnier,’ ” says Carey, who calls himself a libertarian but is usually aligned with the right. He says it’s too easy to get up in front of a crowd that has a liberal mind-set, make a remark about the awful conservative in office, and then think you’re especially clever.

      “You know you’re funny when people who support the guy can laugh. That’s the only rule. Otherwise you’re bashing. If you’re doing political humor, you have a responsibility to be funny,” not just play to the politics, Carey says. “A comic is the one who gets laughs. A humorist is the one who gets ‘I agree with you.’ ”

      On the other hand, political events cross all party lines. The last presidential contest in itself provided some of the richest fodder for comedy since Bill met Monica. “The 2000 election was remarkably funny,” says Greg Proops, who co-starred with Carey on ABC’s Whose Line Is It Anyway? and now hosts a comedy show at a Los Angeles club. “After it was over, I was surprised Haiti didn’t invade us to install a democracy.”

      That’s how it works with politics and comedy: Serious journalism is the starting point for satire.

      CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who presided over a seminar with the editorial staff of satirical newspaper The Onion, says the intersection of politics and comedy is the result of the blending of news, entertainment and politics. “Politicians want to figure out ways to be seen as real, as humans, likable,” Cooper says. “It becomes another way to market themselves.”

      The Onion takes on all news, especially politics. (Among recent headlines: Bush to Make Up Missed National Guard Service This Weekend; Al Franken Announces New Book Project, ‘Ha Ha, Bush, Your Dog Is Dead.’) “We’re not anti-right or anti-left; we’re anti-stupid,” says head writer Todd Hanson. “But Bush lately has been more stupid.”

      Adds editor Carol Kolb: “We really want to be in the middle. Both sides are knockable. We like to think we are more truthful than the actual news.”

      She also says the paper is lucky in that it doesn’t have to worry about being too offensive, as a late-night talk show would. “We’re smaller. We fly under the radar.”

      But they’re not so small that they don’t play into the theory that people increasingly get their news from comedy outlets such as The Onion. An Onion story about al-Qaeda members being telemarketers was taken seriously by a news outlet in Grand Rapids, Mich.

      John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, cited a recent Pew poll that found 20% of Americans 18-30 years old get their news from TV comedy.

      “I don’t believe that statistic,” says The Daily Show’s Colbert. “I don’t think they’d come watch the show if they didn’t have some idea of what the news was already. We don’t educate them that much.” To get a political joke, he says, you have to have some knowledge of the person and the issue already.

      And sometimes, even politicians use humor to their benefit and to create or alter an image. Al Gore, Al Sharpton, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and even George W. Bush have appeared on Saturday Night Live making fun of themselves. Says Podesta, “The right candidate can use humor.”

      Bill Clinton was good at using humor both before he was elected and into his presidency, until the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “It robbed him of the ability to use humor,” says Podesta, who was Clinton’s White House chief of staff.

      Cracks Colbert, “I think President Clinton should have claimed it was a joke. ‘Don’t you get it? I had sex with an intern in the Oval Office! Hilarious. I’m just too hip for the room.’ ”

      Some politicians are naturally better at delivering lines than others. So how do you teach a politician to be funny?

      “Drugs and alcohol,” quips Mike Murphy, principal partner in Navigators, a Republican consultant firm and senior strategist for McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000. “The worst thing you can do is take an unfunny person and try to make him funny.”

      But he acknowledges that the country has come to expect politicians to be funny. Murphy says it’s a sign of our times. “Pop culture rules everything today. Pop culture has become so important in running for political office.”

      And why not go on a late-night humor show rather than a serious political show? Says Murphy, “They’ll put the candidate there, where there’s quick, wide publicity and acceptance instead of putting him in the Tim Russert hot seat to do trigonometry.”

      “It was just that Bush made it look like trigonometry,” Proops cracks.

      Mark Katz, author of Clinton & Me (Miramax Books, $22), wrote jokes for the president’s big dinners in Washington and already is working on “a secret plan to make John Kerry funny. It revolves around the word ‘craggy.’ Have you noticed how often that word is used to describe him? I’m working on craggy jokes.”

      In the meantime, Katz shares some Kerry material he already has prepared: “Kerry is so Lincolnesque his photo ID is a $5 bill.”

      Ba-dum-bump.

      “It’s not who’s funnier,” says comedian Richard Lewis, one of the stars of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. “It’s that we deserve to speak our minds.”

      And unlike political campaigns, which have natural conclusions, the left-right humor race likely is one that will continue without ever reaching consensus. As NBC’s Campbell Brown, Weekend Today co-anchor, says, “It’s a competition that neither side is winning.”

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