WOSTER: Have late-night television comedians destroyed respect for elected officials?No one’s reputation could survive being savaged night after night by monologue spinners intent on getting easy laughs and stretching the boundaries of acceptable taste.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
Many years ago, I sometimes swapped stories with another editor in the quiet, early-morning newsroom while we ran wire-service copy through a machine that turned a string of yellow perforated tape into news columns that could be pasted onto a page.
It was repetitive work, and we had time to talk over the world’s problems. A recurring conversation I recall well involved what the other editor saw as a growing disrespect for elected officials. He placed some of the blame at the feet of late-night television comedians, saying no one’s reputation could survive being savaged night after night by monologue spinners intent on getting easy laughs and stretching the boundaries of acceptable taste.
(Notice I didn’t say good taste. Good taste is one thing. Acceptable taste can be quite a different matter entirely.)
Anyway, my co-worker thought the comedians were going far beyond those boundaries as they skewered presidents and members of Congress and governors of states. He wasn’t particularly prudish, and he never expressed a real political partisanship in his comments. He’d defend politicians of both parties with equal vigor against the monologues of the comedians. I never got the impression he thought any politician was above criticism. He just considered the nightly slams and gigs and pokes unnecessarily harsh. And he thought the process tended to coarsen the political discourse and to dehumanize the men and women who had been chosen by a majority of citizens to lead us all for a set period of time.
I’ve never considered myself a prude, either, but I sometimes found myself thinking the guy was on to something. The general respect for elected leaders has seemed to have fallen over the years and decades. Maybe the politicians have it coming. I suppose some of them do. But the jokes and gags too often seem too easy, a lazy person’s effort. A listener can pretty much tell what’s coming before the words leave the comedian’s mouth these days, and it usually isn’t pretty.
Will Rogers had a way of skewering politicians for their foibles, but I never had the sense he was being mean-spirited. Perhaps I’m mistaken. I was never around when the rope-spinning cowboy philosopher did his thing. Most of what I know about him and his wit, I read in the papers.
For my money, Bob Hope was as gifted at political comedy as anyone I ever heard. Perhaps it was his vaudeville background. He had a way of raising an eyebrow or pursing his lips that set the audience up for the gag. And his sense of timing was impeccable. These days, many people, including me now and then when I’m headed for a joke in writing, say “wait for it.” Bob Hope would simply stand on the stage with a mischievous grin that made the audience sit there and wait for it. And the audience waited excitedly, on the edges of the seats, ready to laugh at they knew not what, only that it would be priceless.
One of Hope’s nicely delivered lines came during the Nixon-Kennedy campaign of 1960. Kennedy’s relative youth and inexperience was a topic of conversation on the campaign trail, and after a television debate, Hope quipped of Kennedy that he “looked a little nervous. He’d never been allowed to stay up that late before.”
What? Well, of course, it’s silly. But it’s also funny and far from the mean-spirited approach many of the comedians would take today.
Dwight Eisenhower has always been one of my favorite presidents. A number of presidential scholars and historians criticize his performance in office, but, hey, he was a war hero and a grandfatherly character. He looked like a guy who might play a president on television. I was a kid, and he was the president of the country, for Pete’s sake.
Hope said the former Allied Forces’ general ran for president because it was the only way he could get out of the Army. Hope also said of Ike, “If he slices the budget like he slices a golf ball, the nation has nothing to worry about.”
I’m hopelessly old-fashioned, but I like that sort of political humor.