Gore Closes the Late Night Comedy Gap

In the Final Days of the Campaign, Gore Closes the ‘Joke Gap’

By Buck Wolf

Nov. 3, 2000 — Can you be the biggest joke on late-night TV and still win the presidency? You bet — just ask Bill Clinton.

In the final days of the campaign, the presidential race looks tight. But on late-night television, George W. Bush has a commanding lead among the candidates as the No. 1 butt of late-night comics. Al Gore has closed the gap in recent months, but he’s still trailing.

“You might think whichever candidate gets made fun of most loses. But it’s not that easy,” says Dan Amundson, research director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.

“Dan Quayle won in 1988, and Clinton was re-elected in a landslide, despite being the most joked-about man in America.”

The nonpartisan media watchdog group tracks jokes on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Show with David Letterman, Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. On average, more than 13 million viewers tune in to these shows every night — many of them younger, more impressionable voters.

In September, Bush commanded a 3-1 lead in jokes. Gore came back strong in October, nearly matching Bush joke for joke. But Bush still had a 117-113 lead as the month drew to a close.

Maybe it’s all part of the Bush strategy. “Does it bother you that I’m always, you know, yakking about stuff?” Letterman asked the GOP candidate on Oct. 19. “No,” Bush said. “I’m glad you’re saying my name.”

Quayle Inspires Joke Study

Of all the people who have been ravaged by comics, it was Dan Quayle who inspired CMPA to begin tracking jokes. “Quayle became a sensation on late-night TV in the 1988 election,” Amundson says. “We wondered if there was any correlation between all those jokes and the vote.”

Quayle hit his comic high point in 1992, when he was the target of 357 late night jokes. Comedians couldn’t be happier when George Bush announced that he was keeping his vice president on the ticket for his bid for a second term. “From all the comedians in the world, ‘Thank you, Mr. Bush!’ Johnny Carson said in a Nov. 8 monologue that year.