By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Yes, the openly liberal Jon Stewart’s Daily Show has more Bush bashing quantitatively but not necessary qualitatively. Besides, his cable audience is at best minuscule. Leno, meanwhile, damaged any aura of political impartiality he may have claimed when he slobbered over Ah-nuld’s California gubernatorial candidacy and then emceed Schwarzenegger’s victory party. (For more, see my column.) The Letterman folks were aghast. They knew that Jay had taken a step where no host had gone before. Johnny never would have done that. But they also knew it was quintessential Leno, that he runs The Tonight Showlike a political campaign. When he sees something hot, he jumps on it. Forget reputation and credibility as a host: Jay wanted to get a nice number. It’s Leno vs. Letterman in a microcosm: Jay leads in the ratings, but Dave has the legacy and Emmys. And a lock on inventiveness, like having a Nobel Prize winner tell “You might be a redneck” jokes in a recurring bit recently.
Leno was steamed when L.A. Weekly, the Washington Post, and The New York Times accused him of political partisanship following l’affaire Arnold. But shortly after I blasted the comic for becoming yet another Republican political pawn, one of Leno’s best friends in comedy assured, “I think you got it correct.” There are reasons Leno turned right. First, of course, was 9/11, followed by the invasion of Iraq. Add to that the May 2001 departure of The Tonight Show’s so-called vice president in charge of monologues, longtime head writer Jim Brogan, who at one time worked for the late, ultra-liberal New York Congressman Allard Lowenstein. Finally, those incredibly lucrative corporate gigs that book Leno for $100,000 to $150,000 each (plus a chartered jet) where the fat cats don’t want to hear anything bad about the guy cutting their taxes. (These events, along with his Las Vegas appearances, allow Leno to boast he can bank his Tonight Show salary.)
Both Leno and Letterman wished Clinton could have a third term, and while Jay is still flogging really old blow-job humor, his Bush jokes aren’t nearly as biting as Letterman’s. Even Dave’s tired Top Ten lists include more truthfulness about the Bush presidency than most newspapers’ front pages: Top Ten Signs Bush Is Considering Dumping Cheney: “When Cheney says, ‘We’re gonna win in November,’ Bush snarls, ‘What’s this we crap?’” Or, Top Ten Surprises in President Bush’s Address to the United Nations: “Usual smug smirk even smugger and smirkier.” Or, Top Ten Questions You’re Afraid To Ask Condoleezza Rice: “What kind of job will you and Bush be looking for in January 2005?”
Burnett claims his show operates in a completely apolitical atmosphere even though Letterman introduces the Bush-bashing segments with obvious glee. Says Burnett: “As close as I am to Dave, I honestly have no idea what his politics is. I know he votes religiously, but I don’t know who he votes for.” As for the Bush bashing, the executive producer shrugs it off: “There’s no agenda. We’re not a news show and don’t have the need to convey information.”
But as Stupid President Tricks has gained in popularity, it’s become more controversial. Witness the March brouhaha between Letterman, the White House and CNN over the accuracy of footage of a Florida Republican organizer’s kid hilariously yawning and squirming while standing behind Dubya at an Orlando campaign appearance. “It was one of those ‘You’re not going to see that anywhere else but on Dave’ kind of moments,” Burnett recalls. His team noticed that Bush had a speech scheduled and couldn’t find anyone national covering it, so they went to the CBS affiliate in Orlando for the raw footage. Then a writer said, “Hey, look at the kid in the back.”
After the video of Orange County, Florida, Chief Executive Rich Crotty’s dead-on-his-feet son Tyler aired under the title “George W. Bush Invigorates America’s Youth,” CNN reported it had been told by the White House that the child was edited into the video by the Letterman show as a joke and was never standing directly behind the president.
Dave went Full Metal Jacket. He stared into the camera and called the White House assertion “an out-and-out lie” not once but twice. Then he warned his viewers, “When you cast your vote in November, just remember that the White House was trying to make me look like a dope!” Immediately, everybody backtracked, CNN apologized and the White House was cleared of ever having complained. But the Letterman folks still believe the Bushies did try to attack Dave. When Letterman made a stink about it, the White House turned and ran. (Tyler was a guest on Dave’s show and scored cans of Red Bull.)