In case you haven't noticed, there's a presidential campaign going on in this country. There has been for some time. I
think a couple of those guys have been on the stump since about an hour after the polls closed, four years ago.
As I write this, we're a good nine months from marking final ballots but the Mardi Gras is at full volume, soon to grow even
louder. I'm fascinated by how the so-called pundits discuss the race this far from Voting Day. (I'm also amazed that anyone listens to
them, given their recent batting averages. You wouldn't waste $3.99 a minute on a psychic hotline that was wrong as often as any of the
predictors on ABC's This Week.)
Still, someone's tuning in as "the talking heads" are asked who's going to win in November. They generally come back with a
two-part answer, Part One of which goes something like this...
"Well, this early, it's still anyone's game. This far before the '92 election, Bush looked unbeatable and before that, in '88,
the polls had Dukakis with a lead well into double-digits. A lot of things can happen between now and the conventions, let alone before
That's how Part One goes. Part Two is often a fairly-firm prediction on who's going to win.
I especially love the guys who've already called the Guiliani-Clinton match-up in the New York Senate race. As of today, neither
has officially announced, not one commercial has been aired and not one debate has been scheduled. But apparently, none of that can possibly
impact the election in any way, according to the folks who think Rudy can't be beaten or that Hillary has a lock on it.
To be honest, certain losers are already losers; they just haven't admitted it yet. As I'm writing this, Gary Bauer is announcing
his withdrawal from a race that everyone but Gary Bauer seemed to know he was never in. Steve Forbes is insisting he's "in this race to stay"
so he'll probably be the next out. Alan Keyes sounds like he may remain a candidate until long after they finish counting all those ballots
that won't have his name on them.
The answer to the question, "Who's going to be elected?" is a little tougher. The correct rejoinder is probably, "Nobody
knows." However, as I once heard a pundit — I think it was Jack Germond — say on some panel show, "We have to say something.
We're not paid to say, 'I don't know,' even though we usually don't know."
The New Hampshire primary was a few days ago. In 1984, Gary Hart topped all comers from his party in that state just as in '92,
Paul Tsongas beat Bill Clinton and in '96, Pat Buchanan defeated Bob Dole. None of those "winners" even got their party's nomination.
Still, last week everyone was acting as if winning New Hampshire was like coming off the football field, way ahead at half-time.
So what has been decided in the race to date? Only one thing I can see: The shorthand caricatures.
Allow me to elucidate...
There was a time not all that long ago, when you heard very little topical political humor on television. The main source was
Johnny Carson's monologues and, some weeks, Saturday Night Live. Oh, and there are always those Mark Russell specials that PBS airs to make
the pledge breaks seem funny by comparison. But all in all, there wasn't a lot.
Today on what's often a five-a-week basis, you have Jay Leno, Bill Maher, Dave Letterman (health problems, notwithstanding), Conan
O'Brien, maybe Craig Kilborn, occasionally Martin Short and, over on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart. You also have Dennis Miller and Chris Rock
playing tag-team on HBO, and I think there are a couple others I'm forgetting.
Also, Saturday Night Live is more political than ever. It now seems to be de rigeur that they have one cast member
who can portray whoever's currently in the White House. Each of the regulars is learning one candidate and probably praying that fellow gets
in, thereby ensuring the performer four more years on SNL. I feel sorry for whichever black guy gets to play Alan Keyes.
There's no way to measure it but I'd guesstimate TV writers are outputting ten times as many topical jokes about political figures as
were required 20 years ago. Johnny, after all, only did a few per monologue and only worked four (sometimes, three) nights a week.
The proliferation is great because I love political humor...but only up to a point. The point where I stop is that which reduces
an entire candidate to a shorthand caricature, defined by one "hook." Here are some of the shorthand caricatures we've seen in recent
Bill Clinton is horny. Bob Dole is ancient. Al Gore is stiff and boring. Dan Quayle is stupid. Ross Perot is
out of his mind. Ted Kennedy is a fat drunk. Janet Reno is a man.
For some reason, possibly because the jokes are about her appearance and not about anything she does, the digs at Ms. Reno strike
me as over-the-line and, at times, perilously close to misogyny. If they were about her actions as Attorney General — where, God knows,
there's plenty to criticize — it would be a different matter.
As for the others, I suspect they're funny because there's a nugget of truth to them...and the nuggets are probably all about the same
size. The slams of the politicians you like are approximately as valid as the ones about the political figures you despise.
Jokes based on shorthand caricatures do not always constitute political humor. This is because of that yawning chasm...the demand
that must be filled.
Writing jokes every day or night to fill monologues is tough work. Any halfway-decent comedy writer can come up with something
pithy and applicable if inspiration hits. But when it's Noon and they tell you, "You have to hand in 20 jokes by 2:00," that's when you go for
the old shorthand caricatures.
In jokesmithing, one finds certain recurring templates...like the Fat Joke. Fat Jokes are easy to write and, at any given time,
there's always one prominent person whose girth lends themselves to Fat Jokes. I can recall when they were all about Kate Smith, a hefty singer
who was famous for belting "God Bless America" and who was, they said, about the size of the original thirteen colonies, plus the District of
At some point, she either grew too old or died and the Fat Jokes were all switched over to Orson Welles. For a time, you could
watch TV for a month and not know that Welles had made timeless, acclaimed movies...but you sure heard a lot about him being overweight.
Since Mr. Welles passed away, I can't recall anyone having quite the same monopoly, though Dom DeLuise has appeared in almost as many
Fat Jokes as Burt Reynolds movies. Oprah Winfrey and Rush Limbaugh had a corner on the market for about three years there until each started to
lose weight, and Monica Lewinsky and Fergie were the target of many until their recent Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers campaigns. Somewhere in
there, John Candy and Chris Farley showed their poor sportsmanship by dying.
These days, Fat Jokes pretty much rotate between Louie Anderson, Nell Carter, Roseanne, Marlon Brando, Al Roker, Rosie O'Donnell, Ted
Kennedy and the current, all-purpose proper noun in any joke about a person's physical appearance, Linda Tripp.
There are also, of course, Skinny Jokes. You can still view some of the Skinny Jokes about Frank Sinatra in old Warner Brothers
cartoons. These days, they're all about Kate Moss, Calista Flockhart and all supermodels. These don't have quite the sting of Fat Jokes
since almost everyone wants to be skinny and almost nobody wants to be fat.
And there are Large Breasted Jokes. They were once all about Raquel Welch...then they were about Dolly Parton. Pamela Lee
was next in line but she had her implants removed. So lately, I'm hearing Britney Spears.
And there's also usually one prominent male singer who gets kidded for having a high voice. I can recall watching the Wayne
Newton jokes turn into Michael Jackson jokes after a brief stopover as Tiny Tim jokes. Back in the days of radio, they were Dennis Day jokes, I
believe. The "feminine voice" jokes about Mr. Jackson seem to have ceased because he's given comedy writers so many other ways in which to mock
A lot of these jokes aren't really about the people they're about. It's the same way that all those Polish jokes we heard
for years really had nothing to do with anyone of Polish extraction. It was just a name to fill out a joke.
Most humor is at the expense of someone and that bothers me if the joke fails to meet three basic requirements. One is that it be
told in an appropriate venue. Dirty jokes are fine but not in church. You don't go up to the grieving widow at a funeral and tell her the
one about the midget undertaker, the two hookers and the dead clown. For one thing, she wouldn't get it.
Secondly, no person or persons should be unduly or recklessly targeted. The trouble with those Polish jokes is that they were
moron jokes that were all arbitrarily focused on one group. The people who told them didn't even think Polish folks were any of the things the
jokes said they were. They just thoughtlessly plugged in the nationality. Humor is like a weapon, dangerous in the hands of
amateurs. Never point it at the wrong person inadvertently.
And lastly and most important: A joke should be funny. It doesn't have to be fall-down, hold-your-gut, laugh-'til-you-upchuck
funny — a slight giggle will suffice — but it should be funny to whoever's hearing or reading it. At least a little.
This brings us back to the subject of political jokes and —
Hold it. Did I say there were three requirements for a joke? Well, I was wrong. There are four, but the fourth only applies
to political humor. That's the one that says that a public figure should not only be defined by his or her shorthand caricature. In other
words, let's try to write the occasional joke about Bill Clinton that isn't about cheating on his wife.
As we look ahead to the 2000 elections, the returns aren't in but the shorthand caricatures sure seem to be. I'll run down the
field of candidates for you and give the current template for jokes about them:
Al Gore is still stiff and boring. John McCain has an uncontrollable temper. Bill Bradley is on the verge of a heart
attack. Steve Forbes is a very wealthy zombie. Alan Keyes is a screaming maniac. Pat Buchanan is a Nazi.
The only "undecided" seems to be George W. Bush. The forces that designate such things haven't determined if he's going to
be portrayed as a drunken, cocaine-abusing frat boy...or if comedians get to recycle their Quayle jokes and portray him as stupid. By the time
we get to the Super Tuesday primaries, this should all be settled.
The jokes we're hearing — and will continue to hear for nine months, long past the stage we're all sick of them — are fine
if they meet the above requirements — the fourth one, especially. Still, I increasingly worry that some voters won't get past the
shorthand caricatures...won't realize that these are jokes that do not give a total picture of someone who might occupy the highest office in our
This is what the worst kind of campaign advertising does...seeking to define the opposition by one negative, not-always-accurate
characteristic. We get enough of that without political humor further dumbing-down the electoral process.
By now, some of you may be wondering: What does any of this have to do with comic books? And the answer is that it has nothing
to do with comic books. Isn't that amazing?
Comic books have long been accused — often with some justification, I'm sad to say — with being only about shorthand
caricatures: This is the good guy, this is the bad guy. Often, they have shorthand personalities with shorthand outlooks on life, which
is the kind of thing film critics are flagging when they say a movie has "comic book characterization."
With political discourse in this country devolving the same way — with candidates and vital issues being distilled down to facile
one-liners — one would assume that comics would gravitate towards more stories spinning off what's happening in the news. And if one
assumed that, one would be out of one's mind. Comic books, as far as I can see, avoid current events at all costs.
I used to think this was because of the "lead time" in printing comics. Leno finalizes his monologue only hours before the right
hand side of the country sees it. If I put a topical joke in a comic I write today, it'll be a month or three before the artists finish and a
few months more before it gets to readers. So that would be a good reason to not attempt topical material.
But it isn't the reason. The reason is that they think that readers either don't want it or wouldn't understand it...or, more
likely, both. It's like we have to shut out the Real World so we can write about the DC Universe.
I've tried a few times with the simplest, most innocuous references to what's going on in the world today and who's doing it...and boy,
does it upset some people. You get these hysterical e-mails from folks who think that any mention of anything that might ever be discussed on
The McNeil/Lehrer Report is "propaganda." They almost always grossly overreact and/or misunderstand what you wrote.
Sergio and I got some angry mail when we did an issue of Groo that was inspired by the debate over N.A.F.T.A. Almost
exactly half the complaints accused us of propagandizing for N.A.F.T.A. and the other half were incensed that we were against it. It
didn't seem to dawn on either group that the two of us didn't agree on the issue so we were discussing the pros and cons without advocating
Publishers and editors don't say, "Don't do this," but some do discourage it, if only for fear of losing a sale or two. Other
writers have expressed to me similar frustrations and it's a shame. It's a shame any time a writer with something to say is prevented from