This summer, in an effort to promote her new memoir, Hillary Clinton showed up—where else?—across the table from Jon Stewart and then Stephen Colbert. On "The Colbert Report" the former secretary of state sparred with the faux-conservative host, who described the book's account of dealing with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, playing piano with Bono and meeting Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi as "656 pages of shameless name-dropping." Mr. Stewart's take on "The Daily Show" was even more blunt: "I think I speak for everybody when I say, no one cares. They just want to know if you're running for president."
For presidential candidates—including those who haven't officially declared—going on the late-night talk shows is de rigueur, but this wasn't always the case. According to the authors of "Politics Is a Joke! How TV Comedians Are Remaking Political Life," it was actually Hillary's husband who was the first politician to ever appear on Johnny's Carson's "The Tonight Show." At the 1988 Democratic National Convention, Bill Clinton gave a disastrously long and dull speech—it clocked in at 33 minutes, though he had been allotted 15—and this put him in Carson's cross hairs. Carson joked that "the surgeon general has just approved Governor Bill Clinton as an over-the-counter sleep aid." The speech, Carson quipped, "went over as well as a Velcro condom."
The more Carson went on, the more the ambitious young Arkansas politician suspected his prospects for national office might be fading. But rather than hunker down until the next news cycle, Mr. Clinton took the advice of his Hollywood friend Harry Thomason : He embraced the joke.
During his appearance on the show, Mr. Clinton had to endure some additional barbs. When Carson asked Mr. Clinton, "How are you?" the host ostentatiously took out an hourglass to time the governor's response. But Carson was impressed with what a good sport his guest was—Mr. Clinton joked that the situation had allowed him to achieve his goal of appearing on "The Tonight Show"—and amused by his saxophone skills. The future president played "Summertime" with "The Tonight Show" orchestra.
Mr. Clinton's performance was groundbreaking. He showed that he was not the humorless bore Carson had mocked, and he demonstrated, wittingly or not, the growing influence of television comedians on American politics. That's the argument made by S. Robert Lichter, Jody C Baumgartner and Jonathan S. Morris, who note in their book that as far back as 1988 the late GOP operative Lee Atwater was using Carson's monologue as a barometer of national political races.
"Politics Is a Joke!" tells the history of late-night shows, beginning in the early 1960s, when Carson took over "The Tonight Show" from Jack Paar, and traces these shows' growing influence on the fortunes of politicians, especially as programs like "Saturday Night Live" (which began airing in 1975) and Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" (1993) came on the air. The authors, all academics, have also compiled and analyzed more than 100,000 political jokes told by late-night comedians over the last 20 years. Thus, alongside entertaining anecdotes about politicians' appearances, there are serious discussions of weighted averages, statistical significance and standardized beta coefficients.
Conservatives and Republicans have long griped that late-night hosts are by and large liberal, and the book's balanced and exacting authors have the numbers and figures to back this up. In every election since 1992, the GOP presidential nominee has been the butt of more jokes than the Democrat. Overall, the authors "coded nearly twice as many jokes about Republicans as about Democrats." As they put it: "an unexpected finding was that Republican candidates were joked about more than Democrats." Unexpected? Not for anyone who watches TV. Nevertheless, it is good to have the numbers to prove the point.
Not that the liberal skewing of late-night jokes means that Democrats or big government come off unscathed. In 1998, for example, Bill Clinton was the subject of 32.6% of all late-night jokes, the highest rate of any individual, politician or not, over the two decades that the authors tracked. That was the year the Lewinsky scandal broke. And as Jay Leno joked one recent April: "The U.S. tax code is now four times longer than the combined works of William Shakespeare —3.8 million words long. In fact, if Romeo and Juliet were alive today and tried to do a joint return, they'd probably kill themselves again."
But the late-night comics did mostly give Barack Obama a pass during his 2008 campaign and throughout his first term. This leniency, according to the authors, came in two forms: frequency and content. In 2008 Mr. Obama was the subject of only 6% of late-night barbs, well behind President George W. Bush and GOP nominee John McCain. And Sarah Palin "attracted nearly as many jokes in four months as Obama did throughout the entire year." While Ms. Palin and Mr. Bush were assailed for their perceived lack of intelligence, and Mr. McCain was skewered for his age, jokes about Mr. Obama barely touched the man. One example: Mr. Stewart's comment from July 2008 that Obama's Israel trip would include a stop in Bethlehem "to visit the manger where he was born." Not exactly hard-hitting stuff.
Does any of this matter? Messrs. Lichter, Baumgartner and Morris argue that it does. "Research has demonstrated that viewing political humor has an effect on people's attitudes toward targets of the humor, and on the political system in general," they write. At least some of the time, this has unfair results. When "Saturday Night Live" deemed Gerald Ford a klutz, for example, his reputation as a klutz was secured. Yet the truth was that he may have been the best athlete to serve as president.
As the authors find, politicians have only one weapon in their arsenal with which to fight back: appearing on the shows to make fun of themselves. Of course, some politicians do not need a database of 100,000 jokes to figure that out. Just ask Bill Clinton.