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The Jay Leno Show and the rise of political humor

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In part, the headlong dive into news- and politics-based humor represents simple pragmatism. With so many late-night talk shows and comedy programs on cable TV, performers need a rich sea vent from which to get their material.

As 50-year comedy veteran Bob Newhart puts it: "Television is an insatiable beast that must be fed" by writers who "pore through news reports for the tiniest tidbits to keep their material fresh."

Yet to appeal to a mass audience, comedians also need to speak in a universal language. "For their own survival, comedians are trying to reach the broadest and most diverse audiences," says Mr. Thompson. "They need to focus on what is the most shared aspect of everyday life and that, increasingly, is the news."

America, of course, has explored this territory before. Political satire thrived during the American Revolution – in print, onstage, in the public square. Gradually the genre dropped away here while European countries entered a great age of caricature and political cartoons in the 1800s and 1900s.

"Americans are much more passive and much less politically aware [than Europeans]," says Professor Morreall. "Americans tend to go along with things, until they hit a breaking point like the Vietnam or Iraq war."

The modern form of political- and news-based comedy is rooted in the late 1950s. People like comedian-actor Mort Sahl tapped the day's headlines for their routines. Mr. Sahl would actually appear onstage with a newspaper tucked under his arm.

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