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Dave Roepke, Published October 23 2008

Political guests a drag on comedy

Since late-night comedy shows have become as must-do for presidential wannabes as “Meet the Press,” there has been some hand-wringing as vigorous as a surgeon scrubbing up before an operation.

Oh the horror, all the serious somebodies yukking it up with professional cut-ups. Ha-ha and hear ye attached at the hip – a sad symbol of our frivolity. You get the drift.

Thankfully, pundits have given up that particular fight. Light makes right is the new ethos. A thaw was inevitable when candidates started announcing their campaigns on these shows, as California’s cigar-chomping governor and John McCain did with Jay Leno and John Edwards did on “The Daily Show.”

Though I’m all for seeing wet blankets on the retreat, some worry-warting remains. It’s good for the politicians to be frequent guests on comedy shows, but is it good for the comedy shows to have politicians as frequent guests?

The short answer is no. I’d rather give myself a nose job with a spork than watch another politician grin and bomb it on television.

A caveat: Comedy’s our purest art form, the only one that depends on eliciting a completely unconscious physical reaction. If music was like that, favorite songs would trigger a small but pleasant seizure. Different strokes for different folks.

Still, the appearance of McCain running mate Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live” last week was, by my reckoning, as awkward and unfunny as “SNL” gets. That’s quite a feat on a show that has a long history of awkward and unfunny moments.

This is not a partisan complaint. Barack Obama’s turn on “SNL” last year was lame as well. All four of the major presidential-ticket candidates have swatted at softball questions with the late-night hosts, barely registering a chuckle.

Diagnosing the problem is easy. Slinging arrows from afar is easier than throwing elbows in the studio. It’s like hunting deer with a buck right there in the stand. The two jobs are just too different to be done effectively in the same room. Subversion and inclusion are rotten roomies.

Lorne Michaels, producer of “SNL,” said this week they don’t tone it down when targets become guests, but Leno got to the bottom line in a 2004 USA Today story: “Politicians get to show their lighter side, and we have a big audience.”

There’s your explanation. Jokesters can justify being lackluster because the ratings are blockbuster. Palin’s appearance gave “SNL” its largest audience in 14 years.

So don’t feed that beast of boring by mistaking campaigning with comedy. There are far more enjoyable ways to sit silently on your couch.

Roepke can be reached at (701) 241-5535