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Candidates try to transform grins into wins
This image provided by NBC shows Senator Hillary Clinton (right) delivers an "editorial response" to SNL's parody of this week's Democratic debate with Amy Poehler (left) who plays Clinton on the show. Clinton took a break from the campaign trail to thank "Saturday Night Live" for giving her candidacy a boost _ although she failed to get an official endorsement from the show. (AP Photo/Dana Edelson - NBC) Dana Edelson

It's been a funny presidential campaign. No fooling.

Spin the TV dial, flip through the newspaper or click your computer mouse and you'll unleash a tidal wave of skits, satires, viral videos, audio mash-ups, quips, ad-libs and one-liners, all aimed at making you chuckle as you choose this year.

"I call it the `Saturday Night Live' primary," said political consultant Kevin Smith, a veteran of past presidential campaigns.

Sure, politics are often a joke. This year, jokes are politics.

"You don't get to win the highest office in the land without being mocked along the way and proving that you're man - or woman - enough to take it," said Daniel Kurtzman, who has written books on political humor and who edits a political humor Web site at

Mocking politicians has been a popular American pastime for 225 years or so. And occasionally the candidates themselves would join in: Richard Nixon's 1968 "Sock it to me?" appearance on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" remains a political and comedy milestone.

Worried that a "Laugh-In" appearance would demean the office, Nixon's Democratic opponent - Hubert Humphrey - declined to appear on the show. Many politicians shared that concern.

Until now.

Consider these candidates' attempts to prove readiness, on day one, to be comedian in chief:

-Barack Obama appeared in an "SNL" Halloween skit - wearing an Obama mask. Later he delivered a top 10 list on the "Late Show With David Letterman" (campaign promise number 8: "Appoint Mitt Romney secretary of lookin' good").

-John McCain has appeared on "Letterman" and "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." He's bantered on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" almost a dozen times (telling the host, after visiting a war-torn Baghdad market, that "they take all plastic, and so that's good").

-Stewart, along with comedians Stephen Colbert and Conan O'Brien, staged a mock fistfight this year over who "made" Mike Huckabee.

-Maybe Huckabee made Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor recently battled the host of "The Colbert Report" in air hockey, with Texas as the puck. He later appeared reluctant to leave the "SNL" anchor desk after a guest commentary.

-Sen. Hillary Clinton, some believe, saved her campaign in the last two weeks, making a well-received "SNL" cameo appearance the week after the cast and guest host Tina Fey poked fun at the Obama candidacy.

"The appearance went over big, most likely because few viewers could believe that Hillary would be able to take the joke," wrote Alex Mar on MTV's Web site.

"Someone like Tina Fey, talking to women, is really significant," said University of Kansas political science professor Burdett Loomis. "In a strange way, she's a serious voice."

Why are candidates so eager to appear on the late-night talk shows?

They're cheap. And they reach young voters.

Think how many people get their news from Jon Stewart, Loomis said.

A spokesman for Comedy Central, which airs the Stewart and Colbert shows, declined to comment.

"We relied heavily on TV and other media to get the governor's message across," said Huckabee spokeswoman Kirsten Fedewa. "He has a unique ability … to tell a story to illustrate an important point."

"You reach an entirely different audience," said McCain campaign spokeswoman Crystal Benton. "And often you get to go over serious issues."

In fact, for all the goofiness, the appearances often deal with serious topics. They have a serious purpose, and sometimes serious outcomes.

"There's some evidence … the media got tougher on Obama after the (Clinton) `SNL' skits aired," Kurtzman said.

That raises the stakes for the candidates, who, after all, are not natural comics, at least intentionally. In fact, says one local comedian, the candidates' attempts at humor sometimes backfire because they looked strained.

"You have to think funny," said David Naster, who writes comedy books and performs stand-up. "You've got to have natural wit and not be rehearsed."

Kurtzman added: "The only time you see the candidates fall flat is when they try to play comedian and deliver pre-scripted one-liners that l they're everywhere. You can watch the Halloween skit, or virtually any other candidate comedy appearance, online, often moments after the original broadcast.

"It's replayed hundreds of thousands, millions of times," Loomis said.

"The candidates know that these clips will get replayed on all the TV networks and circulated on the Internet," Kurtzman said. "That wasn't the case years ago."

To try to even the playing field, campaigns this year have started to produce their own humor videos, hoping they'll go "viral" and spread among the younger voters they covet.

Hillary and Bill Clinton, for example, taped a satire of the final "Sopranos" episode, posting it on YouTube, where at least half a million people have seen it.

Some observers are worried about all of this.

"The new generation of voters needs to feel instantly gratified by listening to their possible leaders," wrote Frances Martel on the Web site of The Harvard Independent. "Unless voters are falling off of their chairs in laughter within a minute or less, they're voting for someone else."

And it isn't clear if any of the campaigns' comedy efforts can move enough votes to actually win elections.

Huckabee, after all, made more appearances than anyone, yet failed to win the nomination (although he went further, longer, than virtually anyone imagined possible).

Other late-night efforts - from Fred Thompson, Dennis Kucinich, Rudy Giuliani - all got more laughs than votes.

But most candidates think the humanizing qualities of the appearances outweigh the danger of looking foolish or non-presidential. And, in work that can often seem tedious, late-night joke-telling can be oddly invigorating.

"Campaigns shouldn't always be painful," Huckabee told The New York Times last summer. "Politics shouldn't be like a root canal."

(c) 2008, The Kansas City Star.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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