Friday, June 12, 2009

DAVID LECHER-MAN GOES TOO FAR: Slandering the Palins, Protecting Obama, and "Humor" as a Partisan Weapon

After two decades and two networks, I stopped watching David Letterman on television on a regular basis when it became apparent to me that his Bush-bashing jokes were more than just him doing his job as the guy who makes fun of the powerful — he hated GWB with a passion, and there was nothing good-natured about the jibes during the final four years. It wasn’t that I was a huge Bush fan, because there was a lot I didn’t admire about him, and his woeful speaking skills made him ripe for lampooning. But Bush was still the President, and Letterman went out of his way to show him disrespect.

The final straw for me was the October 14, 2005 edition of Late Show with David Letterman, when announcer Alan Kalter referred to the President of the United States as a “bitch” in a pre-recorded joke. From a transcript on the Late Show website at

Amidst everything that has gone wrong for President Bush recently, he has had some success regarding North Korea. People are optimistic about this week's negotiations. We take a look.


"The U.S. and North Korea have begun direct talks on nuclear weapons. The U.S. is encouraged Kim Jong Il has halted his nuclear program. In exchange, President Bush has agreed to this." (we see photo of Bush in Kim Jong Il wig and glasses) "You gotta wear this for 6 months, bitch!" Kim Jong Il - Still crazy as a loon!"

I invite you to consider the circumstances under which David Letterman would allow Barack Obama to be referred to as "bitch" even in a joking manner.

A perfect illustration of Letterman’s severe case of BDS is what happened at the 2006 Emmy Awards broadcast. As is now a custom, the nominees for Writing for a Music, Variety, or Comedy Program are not read by the presenters; they are read by announcers over a comedic snippet created by the nominated programs. Nominated along with Late Show with David Letterman were The Colbert Report, Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and Real Time with Bill Maher. Colbert, Stewart, and especially Conan all turned in funny stuff. Maher’s bit, which used as its theme Sen. Larry Craig’s bathroom trolling, was disgusting, but at least it was original. Letterman’s crew simply sent a video collection of GWB pratfalls and funny faces, titled it “Please enjoy our favorite George W. Bush moments,” and backed it with a soundtrack of stock circus music.

The Obama Obsession didn’t just effect the news media, but the entertainment media as well, and in the late-night comedy shows, the two converge on a daily basis. In case you’ve forgotten, the New York Times noticed as early as July 15, 2008 that “The One” was getting a free pass (bold mine):

“The thing is, he’s not buffoonish in any way,” said Mike Barry, who started writing political jokes for Johnny Carson’s monologues in the waning days of the Johnson administration and has lambasted every presidential candidate since, most recently for Mr. Letterman. “He’s not a comical figure,” Mr. Barry said.


Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and others have delivered a nightly stream of jokes about the Republican running for president — each one a variant on the same theme: John McCain is old.

But there has been little humor about Mr. Obama: about his age, his speaking ability, his intelligence, his family, his physique. And within a late-night landscape dominated by white hosts, white writers, and overwhelmingly white audiences, there has been almost none about his race.

“We’re doing jokes about people in his orbit, not really about him,” said Mike Sweeney, the head writer for Mr. O’Brien on “Late Night.” The jokes will come, representatives of the late-night shows said, when Mr. Obama does or says something that defines him — in comedy terms.


There is no doubt, several representatives of the late-night shows said, that so far their audiences (and at least some of the shows’ writers) seem to be favorably disposed toward Mr. Obama, to a degree that perhaps leaves them more resistant to jokes about him than those about most previous candidates.

“A lot of people are excited about his candidacy,” Mr. Sweeney said. “It’s almost like: ‘Hey, don’t go after this guy. He’s a fresh face; cut him some slack.’ ”

Justin Stangel, who is a head writer for “Late Show With David Letterman,” disputed that, saying, “We always have to make jokes about everybody. We’re not trying to lay off the new guy.”

But Mr. Barry said, “I think some of us were maybe too quick to caricature Al Gore and John Kerry and there’s maybe some reluctance to do the same thing to him.”


[Stephen] Colbert said he had been freer to poke fun at Mr. Obama than other late-night hosts because “my character on the show doesn’t like him. I’m expected to be hostile to him.”


Mr. Burnett of the Letterman show said, “We can’t manufacture a perception. If the perception isn’t true, no one will laugh at it.”

Obama’s rise to the Presidency is commonly compared to that of John F. Kennedy, whose fans were also over-the-top at times. But back then, that didn’t stop the comedy. Kennedy satirist Vaughn Meader sold an astonishing seven and a half million copies of his LP The First Family, released in 1962.

Nixon was needled by (among many) David Frye and Rich Little. Then, Ford by Chevy Chase. Carter by Dan Aykroyd. Reagan by John Roarke (of Fridays — that’s when SNL totally sucked). H.W. Bush by Dana Carvey. Clinton by the late great Phil Hartman, and later by Darrell Hammond. W. Bush by Will Ferrell.

Fred Armisen’s Obama?

That’s not needling, that’s a deep tissue massage.

ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, also quoted in the article as reluctant to take on Obama due to racial sensitivity concerns, at least acknowledged the issue directly on his show. Here's Kimmel going to a barber shop in South Central Los Angeles to survey the African-American staff about what's acceptable when joking about Obama:

On the other hand, Letterman's response to those who have noticed his aversion to joking about Obama was to reach back and bash Bush yet again. From the May 8, 2009 edition of Late Show:

Take special note of what Letterman’s writer Mike Barry was quoted as saying: “I think some of us were maybe too quick to caricature Al Gore and John Kerry and there’s maybe some reluctance to do the same thing to [Barack Obama].”

Think about that for a moment.

Barry openly admits he has regrets about helping Letterman sock it to Gore and Kerry. He seems to be implying caricaturing both of those Democrats played a role in Bush being elected to two terms, and that was a mistake he wasn’t going to allow this go-around. To that end, having already cast John McCain as The Cranky Old Guy, Dave and his writers had no such qualms about caricaturing Governor Palin, as is evidenced by Dave's regularly rattling off a list of gravitas-free women to compare her with in back in September 2008:

I kind of like that Sarah Palin. You know, she reminds me, she looks like the flight attendant who won't give you a second can of Pepsi. No, you've had enough. We're landing. Looks like the waitress at the coffee shop who draws a little smiley face on your check. Have a nice day.


I like that Sarah Palin. She looks like the lady in the dental office who gives you the keys to the restroom.

Sarah Palin looks like the weekend anchor on Channel 9. She looks like the hygienist who makes you feel guilty about not flossing. She looks like the relieved mom in a Tide commercial.

She looks like the lady at the bakery who yells out, “44! 44! 45!”

Sarah Palin looks like a real estate agent whose picture you see on the bus stop bench.

Sarah Palin looks like the lady who has a chain of cupcake stores.

Sarah Palin looks like the mayor of a small town that’s banned dancing.

This eventually culminated in Letterman’s June 8, 2009 Top Ten list in which he amended his previous flight attendant remark to say she has a “slutty flight attendant look.” That on top of the implications that (taking him at his word) Palin's 18-year-old daughter is either a tramp or a whore.

Eight months have passed since McCain & Palin were defeated by Late Show’s new idol, and Letterman still can’t let Palin go for a second.

Perhaps Letterman, Barry, Burnett, Stanger, and their gag-writing brethren are taking seriously what proudly ill-informed ABC sports reporter Suzy Shuster (I never heard of her either, before this) wrote on the Huffington Post on September 23, 2008 (bold mine):

[...] From the Friday before the skit on SNL aired to the following Tuesday, Palin’s approval rating dropped ten points. Coincidence? I think not. After all, people in this country are tending to be more influenced by who or what they see on entertainment television, more so than on broadcast news or in print. Americans tune into Jon Stewart for their political appetites more than ever ( and why not). So when you, Ms. Fey, don your Palin wig, you influence millions of voters more than Charles (”Charlie”) Gibson or Brian Williams, Paul Begala or that anorexic blond McCain spokeswoman ever could.

And I think its your responsibility to do so, or else we face the consequence of a woman in the White House who would strive to take away your daughter Alice’s right to choose along with every other woman’s in this country.

Most of us who read the Post are already scared out of our wits of what this woman could “accomplish,” should she reach the Vice Presidency or beyond. Abortion outlawed even in the case of incest or rape. Global warming research dismissed. Polar bears left unprotected, not to mention moose murder celebrated. But you, Ms. Fey, have the ability, with just a wink and a smirk, to change the minds of millions of casual viewers and even more casual voters, to educate them. [...M]any swing-state voters get their information and cue from you, Ms. Fey, and you need to provide as much of it as one woman possibly can, before the election is upon us and it is too late.

Comedy can cure and comedy can enlighten, but it must be a constant to reach enough ears to change the hearts and minds of this country, Ms. Fey, and not a minute more can afford to be wasted. So smear on your lipstick, get that slightly crazy look on your face, sharpen your No. 2 shotgun and get to work…

I once had a civics teacher who had escaped the Soviet Union. I never forgot his stories of how risky it was to joke about Stalin, Khrushchev, or Brezhnev. What above-ground humor there was that wasn’t folksy and benign had to be aimed at the correct targets; in other words, it was used as a political weapon by supporters of the government. Here, in the United States of America, “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” I never had a thought that such cowardly thinking could possibly take hold. But, it seems like we’re heading in Moscow’s direction — humor-wise, and otherwise.


Mark E. said...

Nice posts at Hotair. Funny stuff...yet true.

L.N. Smithee said...

Thanks for commenting. I know SOMEONE reads my blog because I link using shortened URLs and track the number of hits. Thanks for being the rare bird who comments.

Beebles said...

I read it too. A lot of work went into this post, and it's such a convincing argument.

We're really better off if Patterico dusts off his blog roll and adds some fresh stuff and deletes some old stuff.

Actually, I just plain wish there was a better way to organize that altogether. Part of the problem with the media is that internet is taking too long to supplant the old media.