The Comedic Reaction to the Many Stages of the Wikileaks Story

The Wikileaks dump has been a dominant and ongoing story for a couple of weeks now, and the coverage by comedians has been just as heavy. As the story has changed its focus during that time, so have the jokes, and the comic take reveals a lot about how we understand and disagree about this complex and morally nuanced story. And that’s without even touching on the jokes about how funny the name “Wikileaks” is, because I think we can all agree, it’s a damn funny name.

Prologue: The Afghan war documents leak

We first heard of Wikileaks over the summer, when the web site released secret documents about recent atrocities committed in the war in Afghanistan. This got a couple of days’ coverage by late night comedians, and its own Top Ten list, but many of the jokes just drew a comparison between this leak and the BP oil leak, which at the time was still a late-night standby. (Letterman: “The White House is very upset about a bunch of secret documents about the Afghanistan war that were leaked online. Out of habit, BP apologized.”)

The Daily Show ran a segment on the leaks, emphasizing the role of the military figure who leaked them, Brad Manning (aka bradass87), and how he smuggled out the secret information by recording it on a Lady Gaga CD.

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It’s worth noting: throughout the summer leak story, Julian Assange’s name was never mentioned.

Part One: Julian Assange, Gossipmonger

This time, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been the center of the story. While the largest segment of the leaked documents dealt with international stances towards Iran, a portion contained inside personal information about foreign leaders, and this is what drove the story in the news. Understandably, comedians embraced the gossip angle. Jon Stewart compared Assange to Perez Hilton.

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That weekend on Saturday Night Live, Seth Meyers noted that the leaked secret cables had been coded, “So Juicy You Guys.” In the cold open, Bill Hader played Assange as the host of TMZ.

We also saw comedians reveal Wikileaks cables about non-political figures, like Santa Claus, or – continuing her prior association with the leaks – Lady Gaga (Craig Ferguson: “WikiLeaks gets all the secret stuff, even the truth about Lady Gaga. Apparently there’s meat UNDER the dress too.”)

And then of course there’s Rickyleaks.

Part Two: Julian Assange, Fugitive Terrorist Supervillian Dyson Vacuum Guy

As the story developed Wikileaks and Assange began to find themselves persecuted. Service providers had been cutting off access to the site and credit card companies were blocking donations, while governments tried to capture Assange, debating whether he could be prosecuted for treason in the United States before resurrecting a warrant for what’s called a “Sex by Surprise” incident in Sweden that led to his surrender in Britain.

While some comedians were skeptical of the political narrative portraying Assange as a more dangerous figure than bin Laden, others reinforced this viewpoint uncritically. (I have found no full-throated public support of him, outside of Twitter.)

The Onion: Julian Assange fired from IT Job at Pentagon

The Daily Show: To Catch a Somewhat Pasty Predator

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Jimmy Kimmel:

“Julian Assange was arrested by British authorities. Our secrets are safe – as long as no one else figures out how to use the Internet.” “WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should resign for ordering American diplomats to spy on their foreign counterparts. Thanks, creepy Australian guy who’s wanted for rape in Sweden, we’ll make a note of that.”

Jimmy Fallon:

“After hacking into Visa and MasterCard yesterday, WikiLeaks supporters now want to take down After they do it, Amazon will suggest a list of similar sites they might also enjoy hacking.”

Jay Leno:

“WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange turned himself in to police in England today. When the judge asked him where he lived, he said he didn’t want to give out that information. Maybe ‘Wiki-hypocrite’ would be a better name for this guy.””The head of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, has gone into hiding. They say he’s some place all alone where no one can find him. In fact, officials believe he may be hiding in a theater showing ‘Burlesque.’”

(Side note: If Jay’s joke sounds somewhat familiar, it should. Here’s a Weekend Update joke Tina Fey told right after 9/11: “US officials continue the search for Osama Bin Ladin. Reports suggest that Bin Ladin is most likely somewhere remote and barren, where he will not encounter others. The FBI has begun searching theatres showing the movie ‘Glitter.’”)

Part Three: David Letterman, Agent of Influence

If there’s a silver lining, it was the cable released this Wednesday titled David Letterman: Agent of Influence. As reported yesterday, the cable related the news that Saudi youth were turning away from extremism under the influence of American movies and television programming including Late Night, while continuing to ignore our costly government propaganda networks. Letterman himself was pretty gleeful, no surprise, dedicating a portion of his monologue and a Top Ten Reasons Saudi Youth Love Me, Dave Letterman that night to the news. (Interestingly, as of Friday morning Letterman’s web site has posted a transcript of that night’s Top Ten, but no video.)

Conan had a different reaction, addressing the Letterman cable in last night’s monologue: “According to WikiLeaks, the airing of American TV shows in the Middle East is helping to stop Islamic extremism. Would-be terrorists watch our reality shows and realize they’ve already won.”

If nothing else, that is something we can all agree on.

Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.

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