Gore Closes the Late Night Comedy Gap

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Some others from 1993:

“There’s a huge group of people trying to get Quayle to run in ’96. They’re called Democrats, I think” (Arsenio Hall, Oct. 18)

“Yesterday Bush attended a children’s camp and then an all-star game. Maybe Quayle can handle the job after all.” (Jay Leno, July 15)

Letterman’s Top Ten Reasons for Dumping Quayle: “Number ten: Getting harder to drag him away from his ant farm … Number eight: Too costly for the Pentagon to prepare his briefings in comic book form … Number Three: Secret Service tired of bathing him.” (July 15)

But as savage as these jokes are, Amundson says it is unclear how barbed humor influences an election. Certainly, the Republicans lost the White House in 1992, and Quayle’s presidential bid in 2000 fizzled.

Nevertheless, Clinton was the subject of even more jokes over the next few years and he still won his second term.

“I think, to some extent, late-night TV jokes somehow helped Clinton,” says Amundson. “They served as a sort of inoculation. By the time his re-election came around, the public had heard those Gennifer Flowers jokes and they had accepted him as a hopeless philanderer.”

By 1994, Letterman had already described Arkansas troopers’ arrest technique: “OK, ma’am, step out of the car, put your hands on the governor.” And when news broke of Wynonna Judd’s pregnancy, Leno joked that “the White House automatically issued a denial.”

Late-Night Comedy as News

Although the effects of late-night TV on the political process remain unclear, many researchers believe that it’s playing a larger role in the political process. A significant number of people — especially younger people — get at least some information from late-night shows and so-called nontraditional outlets, according to a survey early this year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.