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The Jay Leno Show and the rise of political humor

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Since humor provides a window into the nation's soul, the rise of headline comedy says a lot about who we are at the moment. Certainly the ability to laugh at our political leaders, and by extension ourselves, is a sign of a healthy society. Some comedians even get more grandiloquent about it than that: They see the purveyors of today's headline humor as not only providing entertainment, but also incisive social commentary at a time when the real media increasingly can't or won't.

Yet others see the nightly guffaws about Sarah Palin's IQ and Barack Obama's ears adding to the cynicism about government, turning the nation of Jefferson into a nation of smart alecks. In the end, is all this laughter helping us become more politically sophisticated or more superficial?

TO ILLUSTRATE THE "normalization" of news-based humor, look no further than the three-decade journey of "Weekend Update," the segment on "Saturday Night Live," in which comedians sit at an anchor desk and satirize the week's events. The sketch, pioneered in the 1970s, is the longest-running recurring segment on "SNL." But it has always been just one sketch on the show, which airs late Saturday night. For this fall, NBC has ordered six episodes of the fake news show for its prime-time lineup on Thursday night.

The move by Jay Leno to prime time (10 p.m.) Sept. 14 for a full hour of nightly comedy also underscores the rise of headline humor. His show will come complete with comedian D.L. Hughley as a Washington-based "political correspondent" and regular updates from actual NBC news anchor Brian Williams.

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