This Week in Political Comedy: Fahrenheit 9/11

The Week in Political Comedy is a column that rounds up the week’s biggest news comedy stories and looks at how the presumptions, opinions, and short cuts comedians make shape our perception of the world. This week, we take a look at the news since Labor Day.

It was a short week but a busy week, as the nation’s comedy outlets got back to work after their late August breaks. Coming into this week the big comedy story was supposed to have been Joe Biden, who not only had a heavily promoted appearance on The Colbert Report, but also featured as the Onion’s front-page headline, “Biden To Cool His Heels in Mexico for a While.” In a slower news week the VP’s appearance would have been the perfect topic for relentless condemnation by talking heads and the opposition. It’s an ongoing question whether visits to comedy shows humanize the politician or cheapen the office.

And it was certainly humanizing to watch Biden hand out hot dogs to the audience while Colbert went on about toilets and angels flying up soldiers’ butts. But it was also humanizing to watch Colbert launch into a Word questioning the administration’s assertion that the combat mission in Iraq was really ended, then asking Iraq’s Commanding General Ray Odierno whether the non-combat troops in Iraq were still receiving combat pay (they were; did any journalists ever ask that?), and finally reminding the Vice President how a seven-year war without conscription meant the burden of fighting it had fallen exclusively on one-and-a-half percent of the population.

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Bomb Bomb Koran

But that’s only the week that could have been, before reality was consumed in a fast-spreading wildfire of Koranical proportions. Until Florida pastor Terry Jones finally relented on Thursday afternoon, it looked like 9/11/10 was going to be the day that ushered in the apocalypse, and the news media spent most of the week working the country up into a fearful hysteria. Comedians were forced to turn their attention to burning Korans too.

That’s with the exception of Jay Leno, of course, who in his single-minded focus on bashing Obama’s economic proposals, must have only seen the apocalypse that’s coming in the form of Bush’s tax cuts expiring.

Letterman joked about public condemnations of the act by Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton. Jimmy Kimmel offered up more traditional items to burn on anniversaries (for the ninth anniversary, try leather).

Twitter saw wide condemnation from the fake celebrity population, as well as a meme that mistakenly thought he was intending to burn a Korean.

The Daily Show fell back on their tried-and-true strategy: turning right-wing arguments back against their proponents, as their way of exposing the hypocrisy and absurdity of Republican viewpoints. So in this case: are conservative politicians and media calling for investigations into the Muslim charity’s finances? Then The Daily Show will call for an investigation into Christian finances! A twist: The investigator becomes the investigatee! It was funny enough, and last week’s vacation placed just enough time between this bit and their previous call for an investigation into Fox News’ finances.

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Jan Brewer’s Interior Monologue

The best luck Jan Brewer ever had was timing her live-TV meltdown to occur when the country was off enjoying the final week of summer. Still, even though this was last week’s news cycle, comedians couldn’t help but comment as they returned to work.

The most common tactic in the Brewer segments was to fill the void of her silence. Comedy, it seems, abhors a vacuum. So Craig Ferguson made funny fart noises, while Jon Stewart, after calling her performance a brain fart, put fake Scott Bakula’s voice into her head as an opening scene from Quantum Leap.

Since we’re on the topic of vacuums, there’s also Jay Leno. He joked on Tuesday: “Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer stopped speaking during an interview and stared blankly at the camera for 30 seconds. The good news is, she’s now eligible to be governor of Alaska.”

Now. This could have been the place for some astute comparisons between Brewer and Sarah Palin’s similar paths to power. Both are populist, conservative female executives whose inarticulateness, even if genuine, functions directly and purposefully as a mask to soften

their image as they sneak through dangerous and reactionary policies. But that’s expecting a lot from Jay Leno.

This same “now eligible to be governor of Alaska” punch line has been floating around late night since the day Palin quit. It was funny last month when Jimmy Kimmel made it in reference to Steven Slater, the Jet Blue flight attendant, because he also quit his job suddenly. And Paula Abdul quit her American Idol job last year, so it made sense when Letterman made this exact same joke about her then, and when he made it about Brett Favre, that was not intolerably annoying either, because Favre can’t stay quit about anything. So you see how the joke works? It’s a quitting your job joke. It’s not a generic, any dumbass can be governor joke. Of course Jan Brewer’s eligible to be a governor. She’s already a governor.

In The Daily Show’s segment, their ultimate point about the Brewer flub is the most depressing one: she’s still going to win. As of September 7, a week after the debate, Brewer was still leading her opponent, 60-38.

The Education of Jimmy Kimmel

The outlier of the week, for political topics, was Jimmy Kimmel. He didn’t draw any particular attention to it, and I didn’t even notice while watching it, but on Tuesday Kimmel dedicated almost five minutes of his monologue to education. He built from an unassuming opening of Back to School jokes into a focused, comic look at the educational failings in the show’s home state of California, and its implications for their children. His modestly proposed solution had the effortless graceful quality of a Jonathan Swift piece: if we are going to cut school days, then for the good of the country let’s abolish school altogether.

It’s worth watching, and not because any particular moment is memorable or hilarious—for an extended bit he resorts to a Governor Schwarzenegger impersonation that was already stale in 2003—but because the segment as a whole comes across as heartfelt and nostalgic (he mentions his own childhood) without stooping to sentimentality and without ever dropping the impression that this was just another run-of-the-mill monologue’s string of cheap laughs. Though rest assured, within minutes he’s right back to talking about the cocaine in Paris Hilton’s purse.

That was the week in comedy. Let me know if there’s anything I missed, funny or unfunny. Stay safe this 9/11, everybody. Don’t burn anything Obama wouldn’t burn.

Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.

This Week in Political Comedy: Fahrenheit 9/11