Who gets their news from the news anymore? Today it's a truism that TV anchors deliver the headlines, but if you want to know what’s really happening you need an entertainer. For Trumpists, that would be Rush Limbaugh and the prime-time stars of Fox News. For everyone else, it’s the late-night comedian of your choice — Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Sam Bee, Bill Maher, Conan, Seth, and/or Hasan (well, at least until Netflix bafflingly canceled Patriot Act last week).
We take it for granted that our late-night hosts will devote extra time to covering the party political conventions, in some cases more time than their networks’ nightly newscasts do. We expect them to touch on all the key talking points of the two parties, and we expect the comedy to be savage. (Even the politically trepidatious Jimmy Fallon joked last week, “If you missed Michelle Obama’s speech, don’t worry — Melania will deliver the same speech at next week’s RNC.”)
To anyone my age and older, though, we remember it wasn’t always this way. And as the Republicans take their turns (and burns) this week, I think it’s useful to go back to when the change happened, and pay tribute to the one person who, more than anyone else, saw the future of politics and saw that it was very funny.
It’s January 1992. George H.W. Bush is the president. Dana Carvey is his doppelgänger on SNL. Then as now, SNL’s political satire is more concerned with nailing the character than nailing the character to the wall. SNL impressionism reached a zenith with the talent-packed ABC News ’88 debate sketch featuring Tom Hanks, Jon Lovitz, Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, and a rare sketch appearance by Kevin Nealon. The ’92 campaign will be notable as well, since Carvey is also the best Ross Perot impersonator on the planet, forcing SNL to use a greenscreen when debate time rolls around.
Elsewhere at NBC, Johnny Carson is wrapping up his 30th and final season as host of The Tonight Show. You’re always sure to get political jokes in the monologue — it’s a cliché that Johnny is our “national comedian” — but these jokes (a) make more sense if you watched the news earlier in the day, and (b) bounce lightly off their targets. Johnny covets his vast audience, and even at the height of the Vietnam War and Watergate was careful not to drive away viewers with partisan jabs. He is, as they say, an equal-opportunity offender.
But if you’re lucky enough to have a new network starting to show up on cable grids, you can see the future of comedy. Its name is Comedy Central, and its corporate owners, desperate to stop losing money on the venture, expect the channel to pull in a young, hip audience with a combination of reruns and very cheap-to-make originals.
And that’s when a veteran SNL writer best known as the lovable self-help guide Stuart Smalley is hired as Comedy Central’s first anchorman. Al Franken is not circumspect at all about his opinions — he’s a proud Democrat who hates Bush and the new generation of right-wing talk-show hosts that prop up the president. Safely ensconced on a niche channel, talking to an audience he’s pretty sure sees the world like he does, Franken is about to do something that Carson, Letterman, and the SNL players thought was career suicide — play to the partisan crowd.
It starts with Bush’s 1992 State of the Union address. Obtaining access to the network press pool, Comedy Central takes to the air with State of the Union: Undressed, in which Franken and comedy writer Billy Kimball roast the president while he speaks. It’s clearly inspired by Comedy Central’s best-known show at the time, Mystery Science Theater 3000, the difference being that Franken and Kimball aren’t reading lines written in advance. They’re skewering the president in real time as he fulfills a constitutional duty.
“The President is being applauded by the white senators’ caucus,” Franken deadpans at one point. When Bush notes that the economy, then in freefall, is the country’s “prime problem,” Franken says ironically, “Wow.” Later he asks Kimball, “What’s he talking about now?” To which Kimball replies, “I couldn’t tell you, Al.”
Undressed would be a good start — the L.A. Times’ critic gave it a rave — but the complexities of a presidential campaign called for more. And Comedy Central, still on the cheap, found a way to deliver more that summer with Indecision ’92, the first installment of what would become the channel’s signature political campaign coverage.
Though Franken and humorist Roy Blount Jr. were named co-anchors for the conventions, Blount assumed more of a sidekick’s role as Franken’s raw, wonkish energy carried the show. He could interview political insiders as adeptly as any serious newsman. (D.C. think-tanker Norman Ornstein and journalist Joe Queenan were go-to guests.) Franken could fill time riffing on just about every topic imaginable — and oh, was there time to fill. Comedy Central actually aired more live coverage of the conventions than the networks in 1992, and had more interesting moments, like this unlikely hookup of correspondent Calvin Trillin and then-little-known presidential son George W. Bush:
By election night, Franken could effortlessly preside over four hours of live coverage with multiple sets and standups. Joy Behar, then as now unapologetically liberal, did interviews with the likes of Harvey Fierstein and Al Sharpton. Buck Henry reported bizarrely from Little Rock. During the night Franken (with the help of a bodybuilder) updated the electoral map, though the outcome was rarely in doubt.
At the end of the evening, with his “happy ending — Bush is gone,” Franken sat on a stool and made this prediction to his audience: “This year the wall between news and entertainment has been eaten away like the cartilage in David Crosby’s septum.” And then he added, “I like to think I’m uniquely suited to this little medium, this thing they call infotainment.”
And at first, he was. At the start of the next election cycle in 1996, Franken published Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot And Other Observations. It shot to #1 on the bestseller list, proving there was a market for liberal satire and commentary thinly disguised as comedy, just as Limbaugh had discovered on the right in the late 1980s.
By then a new executive was running Comedy Central, Doug Herzog. He would greenlight The Daily Show and South Park, which would redefine politically-laced humor for the post-boomer generation. But Franken would not return as anchor of Indecision ’96. That job went to another rising talent on Comedy Central — Bill Maher, the host of Politically Incorrect and a comedian also not afraid to air his political opinions.
It’s tempting to say that one person or another deserves credit for changing the relationship of politics and entertainment through the medium of TV. In fact, I just did. (Others make the case for Jon Stewart, but the infrastructure was already in place when he showed up.) But perhaps the real credit belongs to the network executives and advertisers who carved up the audience into demographic niches, starting in the early 1990s. The people running Comedy Central couldn’t have cared less if half of America hated Al Franken’s guts, so long as the small sliver that loved his form of infotainment kept watching.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.