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Road to White House paved with one-liners

Judging by their visits, the candidates seem to agree on the importance of late-night shows - and the jokes.

©Washington Post

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2000

Of all those employed by the conglomerate known as Campaign 2000 Inc. -- consultants, staffs, party officials, journalists, think tanks, candidates -- Matthew Curry undoubtedly has the best job.

The Washington college student reports for work a little after noon. He picks up videotapes of stand-up routines by Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O'Brien and Bill Maher, plunks one into a VCR and scans the programs' transcripts for political one-liners.

He finds a Leno joke about Gore's propensity to make things up: "His favorite singer when he was a little boy: Eminem." Curry calls up a "Joke Tracking" form on his computer and enters the joke in "Elections/Personal Issue/Honesty/Gore, Al."

This is hard work. "More M&M's?" he offers a visitor.

Curry finds another Leno, on Bush giving up drinking: "He said he used to drink to forget. Then he realized, "Hey, I can forget without a drink.' " Curry enters "Elections/Personal Issue/Drinking/Bush, George W."

Curry's labors have taken him across the landscape of political humor, from Gore's muted second debate ("He looked like a Great Dane who just got neutered," says Leno) to Bush's odd mannerisms ("Bush gets very, very excited whenever he starts talking about executing people," says Letterman) to how Ralph Nader could win ("Amend the Constitution so the candidate getting the fewest votes wins, like golf," Letterman proposes).

"I make $7 an hour to catalog jokes," says Curry. "I watch more TV on the job than when I'm at home."

But it doesn't come without occupational hazards. "I tell my mom what I do and she says, "What does this have to do with anything?' "

Don't worry, Mom. Curry works for the highbrow Center for Media and Public Affairs, a research group funded by the MacArthur, Ford and Pew foundations, among others. His project, generously titled the "Entertainment Study," aims to monitor the influence of late-night comics on the nation's political discourse.

The center isn't the only organization convinced that jokes play a big role in the presidential campaign. CBS News' Dan Rather has begun a weekly roundup of political jokes, as does the New York Times. The Associated Press reports them regularly.

"A lot of people are counting and recounting jokes everywhere," says Howard Mortman, a columnist for Hotline, a political Web site that also lists jokes. "There are tallies everywhere."

The candidates, if you judge by their frequent visits to the shows, seem to agree on late night's importance. "The road to the White House runs through me," Letterman boasted while hosting Bush during the primaries. "Even if I have 100 bypasses."

Bush tried Letterman again Thursday after that disastrous spring performance. (Letterman: "How do you look so youthful and rested?" Bush: "Fake it." Letterman: "And that's pretty much how you're going to run the country?") Gore has done Letterman and Leno in recent weeks; his running mate, Joe Lieberman, has done O'Brien and Jon Stewart's Daily Show on Comedy Central.

When Letterman called for a presidential debate on his show, Gore eagerly agreed, and Nader wrote a letter protesting that he wasn't invited. Even Nader has made the rounds of Politically Incorrect and The Tonight Show, where he pulled out a rubber chicken and got no reaction. "This comedy is not easy, is it, Ralph?" Leno remarked.

There's a vast audience for these shows. A Pew Research Center poll in February found that 28 percent of Americans get some campaign news from late-night comedy (ranking the shows higher than, say, religious radio). For the under-30 crowd, the number jumped to 47 percent.

But does a candidate's late-night performance reduce the number of jokes about him in the comedians' monologues? That's where Curry comes in. In August, when Bush was still riding high, Curry counted 78 jokes about Gore and 43 about Bush. In September, when Gore was strong, the count reversed: 94 about Bush and only 34 about Gore. Now that Gore is skidding, the October count so far has the two much closer: 78 for Bush, 67 for Gore.

Still, there's no evidence this actually affects how people vote. For its years of studying and counting late-night political jokes, the Center for Media and Public Affairs hasn't found any links between the jokes about a candidate and his electoral success. In 1988, Bush-Quayle got 96 jokes to Dukakis-Bentsen's 80. In 1992, Bush's 608 jokes exceeded Clinton's 423, not even counting Quayle's 357. In 1996, Bob Dole's 838 jokes topped Clinton's 655. This year, Bush has been more joked about (465) than Gore (322).

The only trends that emerge are that the Republicans tend to be the target of more jokes and that there are far more jokes than a decade ago. The latter trend worries Bob Lichter, who runs the research group.

"It's one small blip in the gradual decline of Western civilization," he laments. "There's no distinction anymore between news and popular culture."

Such worries, however, can be dispatched with a simple counter-argument: Lighten up.

Comedy Central's Stewart, for example, finds it absurd "they'd even turn their attention to this."

This is comedy, not even pretending to be information, he says. "What news are they getting? We're not breaking any news," Stewart says. "We're a very reactive business." Comedians don't drive the national discourse -- unless, perhaps, you think all the jokes on the Lewinsky scandal turned the attention of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings to an issue, he says, that "otherwise would've been ignored."

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