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National Politics

From Stewart to O'Reilly, commentators shape political talk

Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 03:44 AM

In politics at the national level, Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly may be more important purveyors of information than any of the network anchors.

No offense to Wolf Blitzer or Brian Williams, but we live in the age of the comic and the commentator, a time when the national conservation about politics is often shaped by people who are being paid to entertain.

Political commentators have long been a part of the election process, but satire and political humorists have never been as prevalent or as influential as they are today, says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

"Satire is thriving right now, probably more so than at any time in our culture's history," Thompson said in a telephone interview. "Sometimes the smartest political analysis of the day is being done by comedians."

Successful satire can cement a politician's image for better or worse. In the past presidential election, for example, a "Saturday Night Live" skit with Tina Fey as vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin defined the former Alaska governor for many people who weren't already in her camp.

And political commentary abounds on talk radio and 24-hour cable news channels, where "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News Channel is most popular. Also stirring emotions with political fodder are commentators such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck on the right and Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews on the left.

Stewart, in his 12th year as host of Comedy Central's faux newscast "The Daily Show," is performing two sold-out performances Saturday at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. National media critic Howard Kurtz, host of CNN's "Reliable Sources," calls Stewart's weeknight program "the most important political satire on television."

"Stewart has been able to use ridicule and humor to make some really insightful observations about issues and politics," Thompson said.

Equally adept at ridiculing the powerful is Stewart's fellow Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert of "The Colbert Report," a nightly parody of pompous pundits.

Stewart and Colbert have become pop culture heroes to millions of younger viewers who like to digest the daily news with a laugh. In 2010, they led joint-but-opposing marches on Washington, D.C.

Both Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" and Colbert's "March to Keep Fear Alive" were responses to radio talk show host Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally that was held on the anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Thompson says political satire in the mass media has been growing over the past decade. "Before, late-night comics like Johnny Carson would make jokes about politicians, and 'Saturday Night Live' would have Chevy Chase stumble around as a clumsy Gerald Ford," he said. "But now we're getting real political satire, and 'Saturday Night Live' has stepped it up, especially during presidential elections."

And what Colbert does with his parody of a cable news talk show is brilliant, he added.

Meanwhile, Bill Maher's "Real Time" on HBO continues to push the boundaries of political humor. Maher is headed to Ruth Eckerd Hall for a Sept. 1 appearance, just two days after the Republican National Convention closes up shop in Tampa. Tickets go on sale April 28.

And "Daily Show" alumnus Lewis Black is filling concert halls with fans eager for his comical rants, while "Saturday Night Live" alumnus Dennis Miller puts a humorous spin on his conservative views.

Stewart and O'Reilly frequently comically feud in public probably because Fox News is one of Stewart's favorite targets for ridicule, and O'Reilly seems to relish the fight.

Their most recent battle of wit was over O'Reilly's zealous condemnation of overpriced $4 shrimp served at a White House function. President Barack Obama's General Services Administration chief resigned after allegations of excessive spending. Stewart, having fun with O'Reilly's outrage, got O'Reilly to play a game – a challenge to come up with wild scenarios in which the Fox host would have to pay $4 for a shrimp.

In recent years, Stewart and O'Reilly have topped different national polls on who might be the most trusted newscaster in America, a title that once belonged to the granddaddy of all anchors, Walter Cronkite.

Thompson says both men have influence that goes beyond the audiences for their respective shows.

"Stewart has the younger audience, and both shows have relatively smaller audiences than prime-time network series," he said. "But political leaders and media leaders are watching, and there's long-lasting exposure and afterlife on the Internet."

Stewart has said that his show is as much about mocking news media as it is about political humor.

In an interview with PBS's Bill Moyers, Stewart said he thinks of himself as "a comedian who has the pleasure of writing jokes about things that I actually care about. … I am a tiny, neurotic man, standing in the back of the room throwing tomatoes at the chalkboard."

His show has won three Emmys, seven Peabody awards and one Grammy (for best comedy album).

"Stewart rose to fame during the (George W.) Bush administration and, whatever you think about the Bush administration, they provided him with plenty of fodder for satire," said Boston College English professor Paul Lewis, author of "Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict."

"It was like shooting fish in a comic barrel," Lewis said in a telephone interview. "President Bush was famously inarticulate and also was a forceful and powerful president who made decisions that many people thought were wrong. That combination helped make a satirist like Stewart, who thrives on contradiction, absurdity and hypocrisy in politics."

Lewis says it's extremely difficult to measure how much influence, if any, humorists have on the political process.

"Who has more effect on political thinking? A serious commentator like Rachel Maddow on the left or Bill O'Reilly on the right, or someone who uses humor like Jon Stewart or Dennis Miller?" he asked. "I don't think we know the answer. But, of course, satire and ridicule can have an impact."

Lewis says comedy and joking can dismiss their subjects in laughter whereas a serious accusation can hang on like a dog.

He cites the jokes about Bill Clinton's sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky as an example. The constant jokes on Jay Leno's and David Letterman's late-night shows helped turn a scandal into a so-what?

While it appears that most of the successful satirists are liberals, Lewis says there is a lot of ridiculing humor from conservative commentators such as Limbaugh, but much of it is a form of contempt as opposed to "we're all laughing together over the absurdity of this."

Stewart has said that "The Daily Show" has one thing in common with the commentary shows on Fox News. "We are both reactions to the news and to government," he said. "We're both expressions of dissatisfaction."

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