Yesterday the media wrote many stories about the field day Late Night talks show hosts had with Vice President Dick Cheney shooting Harry Whittington. My favorite joke was Letterman’s: “But here is the sad part—before the trip Donald Rumsfeld had denied the guy’s request for body armor.” (More of 2/13’s jokes here.) The White House tried to (perhaps wrongly) find humor of the situation themselves, in hopes of downplaying the event. But then, once it was announced Whittington had a heart attack, the question of how appropriate it was for the jokes to continue was raised (and answered, at least for politcians, as “not at all”).
Last night’s Daily Show was brilliant, again showing the flexibility the show’s unique form allows for making humor about events that have taken darker turns. First the acknowledgement that the story itself has been downgraded from “Incredibly Hilarious” to “Still Funny, But, MMM, Now a Little Sad”, using the much-abused comedic fodder of the Terror Alert chart as an illustration. (The bottom of the scale was “Brechtian”) Then the Daily Show could continue writing jokes which, instead of focusing on the uncomfortable aspects of the actual shotting, slamed the evasive behavior of Scott McClellan in the White House briefing room - a far more worthy target for satire anyway. Pretty consistently, the Daily Show makes great comedy that goes beyond simple punchlines the audience could practically write themselves (and now regularly does, thanks to the Internet). They’re the only comedy show that’s made material about how horribly unforthcoming the White House was about the event or to find humor in the logistics of the hunt - driving up to shoot “flightless wingless quail tards.”
Staying away from the obvious - even on days when the jokes are so easy - is the reason The Daily Show resonates far more than anything else in Late Night today. And even better, when a topic gets hard to find humor in, that’s when their approach really delivers.