Are Late-Night Jokes No Laughing Matter?

George Bush the cowboy is taking on John Kerry the slippery Senator. A Washington research group says that’s how jokes on late-night talk shows portray this year’s presidential election.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs argues that these caricatures can negatively affect the election, because they are the sole source of election news for some viewers. In fact, 21 percent of 18-29-year-olds get their news from comedy programs on TV, according to the Pew Center for People and the Press.

“With political cartoons in newspapers, you can assume some political fluency because readers see the other articles,” CMPA’s Matthew Felling said. “But when you are watching Jay Leno or Letterman, you can’t assume that viewers have the same political fluency. The campaigns devolve into caricature contests.”

CMPA monitored jokes on late-night shows between Jan. 1 and March 9, tallying 213 jokes targeting Bush. Of those, the president’s intelligence was the butt of 94 percent of the jokes, and his honesty was also a favorite target (89 percent). In one jibe, Leno said: “President Bush admitted that his prewar intelligence wasn’t what it should have been. We knew that when we elected him.”

The Democratic presidential candidates were the butt of 249 jokes, according to CMPA, with Howard Dean the most popular target (84 jokes) and Kerry coming in second (53 jibes). Leno had this to say about Kerry’s campaign spots: “The John Kerry campaign is condemning [Bush’s] use of 9/11 in the ads. They say it is unconscionable to use the tragic memory of a war to get elected. Unless, of course, it’s the Vietnam War.”

Diana Owen, a political media professor at Georgetown University, doubts that such jokes are a real threat to democracy. After all, “the comedians are pulling these caricatures from hard news,” she said. “I think young people might find them fun.”