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Michael Winship: What's So Funny About Washington?

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

''What's So Funny About Washington?''
By Michael Winship

A joke is a sometime thing, as wide as a church door or as delicate as a rose. The right or wrong word, too many or too few, their placement or emphasis can determine whether it’s a total dud or fall down funny; the difference, as Mark Twain said, between the lightning bug and lightning.

Too much explanation or thought can whip a joke to death, so it was with trepidation that I went down to Washington last week with some fellow members of the Writers Guild of America, East, the union of which I’m president. I moderated a panel discussion of writers from THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART, THE COLBERT REPORT and LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, among others, to discuss news and late night comedy.

The driving impulse for all of this was the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last weekend, “The Nerd Prom,” as it’s become known, when inside-the-Beltway journalists and their chummy government sources cement their unholy alliance over rillettes and risotto. Over the last few years it has become an Oscar-like event, with Hollywood migrating east to hobnob with the stars of politics and commentary, distracting each other into a trivial frenzy. And you wonder why we can’t get universal health care passed.

Toward the end of our strike last year, the Guild presented a successful event on Capitol Hill, a mock debate in which a team of Daily Show writers representing the Guild went up against a Colbert team posing as the studios and networks. Former White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers moderated. Hilarity and mirth ensued.

This time we thought we’d hitch a ride on the hoopla around the Correspondents’ Dinner and succeeded. A crowd of several hundred showed up at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Huffington Post streamed live video and C-SPAN, which hadn’t covered anything as funny since the last hearings on horticulture and organic food safety standards, videotaped the whole thing.

Not that you saw all of it. Parts of an hour of stand-up comedy by Guild writers apparently were deemed a little too raunchy for the followers of Brian Lamb and so when telecast, C-SPAN cut right to the chase – our panel discussion.

People have been making jokes about the news and having an impact on it since the Greek playwright Aristophanes cracked wise about Socrates. Now, the late night shows are affecting traditional journalism and mainstream coverage of events, and influencing public opinion, more than ever, whether it’s John McCain dissing Letterman and appearing on Katie Couric’s newscast instead, President Obama on Jay Leno, or Tina Fey imitating Sarah Palin to devastating effect on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

In March, a Rasmussen poll reported that nearly one third of Americans under 40 say they get more of their news from Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and other late night comedy shows than they do from traditional sources of news. The poll also found that 39% of the public says the late night shows are making Americans more informed; 21% said they’re having the opposite effect.

Recently, in THE NATION magazine, media critic Eric Alterman noted that the late night programs had been responsible for three of the most important and cathartic media moments of the last decade: Jon Stewart’s evisceration of confrontational talk shows posing as political dialogue when he appeared on the CNN show CROSSFIRE in October 2004 (which many believe hastened the program’s demise); Stephen Colbert’s controversial speech at the Correspondents' Dinner three years ago (in which he attacked the White House press corps’ cuddly relationship with President Bush); and Jon Stewart’s recent assault on CNBC’s Jim Cramer and the misleading, uncritical coverage presented by financial television news in the months leading up to the crash.

Alterman wrote, “It’s a sad – almost terrifying – comment on the state of the American media that we have come to rely on these two funnymen to tell us the truth about our country in the same way we relied on Murrow in the ‘50s and Walter Cronkite in the ‘60s.”

But as we began the panel, buzzing in my head were the sage and terrible words of the late, great NEW YORKER magazine essayist, E. B. White: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog,” he wrote. “Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

Nonetheless, we plunged ahead. So, I asked, is late night comedy telling us a truth that news can’t? Are audiences turning to you for news because you ask questions and make points the mainstream media can’t or won’t?

“No,” said my friend Tim Carvell from THE DAILY SHOW. “On some level, I’d like to think so, but I don’t think that’s the case. We’re dessert at the end of the news menu. I actually think people who say they’re getting their news from us say that as a way of protesting what they see in the news. But I feel the media isn’t a monolith; there’s good media and bad. We’re just off to the side of it, sitting at the back of the class making comments.”

Opus Moreschi, who writes for THE COLBERT REPORT, agreed. “I think if anyone’s getting the news from either of our shows then that’s unfortunate. Because we’re not there to provide news, we’re there to provide entertainment, obviously. But it may be that people who see something on our show and want to learn more find their own news sources and make up their minds. That to me is a pleasant side effect of having comedy that informs. But if all they’ve got is our punchline, they may walk away thinking Denny Hastert is apparently a crossdresser and that’s not accurate information… Wait, sorry, I’m being told that he is.”

J.R. Havlan, a comic who writes for THE DAILY SHOW, added, “I feel like comedy shows and satire, what they do is not inform so much as help people learn how to watch and decipher the news. It’s not about watching us to learn what’s going on but learning to see what’s going on and take it with a grain of salt – that not everything they see is the truth.”

And so it went. There’s lots more – war stories, background on how the shows are put together, interesting questions from the audience. You can go to the C-SPAN Web site to view the whole thing.

But in the end, for all the analysis and commentary that have been written about the late night shows, the bottom line remains: it’s all about the funny.

By the way, we didn’t actually attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner the next night, but did go to one of the after-parties at the Corcoran Galley of Art, mobbed with more than 600 guests and roaring with music at an ear-splitting pitch. We met a berobed Arabian prince who had two of the most formidable body guards I’d ever seen, big and impassive, like the statues on Easter Island.

Then we were straight-armed aside by an even larger phalanx of black-suited security men. Who’s coming through, we wondered – a cabinet member, Joe Biden, the President?

No, it was Eva Longoria, the diminutive but self-important star of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES.

Now that’s funny.

Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.


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New Health Care Structure

Part of the reason for the high cost is that health providers don't get paid for many of the uninsured. Rising prices cause more people will do without insurance. The results have been an upward spiral in health care costs.

The goal of a new health care system could be to get everyone in the system, have competitive pricing, and not to disrupt the health insurance plans that people currently have.

People without health insurance could have a health tax that their employer would send to the government. The employer would have the option of paying all, part, or none of this health tax.

Self-employed people and people receiving other types of income would send the tax to the government. People could opt out of this tax by getting their own qualifying health coverage.

The health tax amount would be determined by age and dependents. This tax would not be more than a certain percentage of a person's total incomes. The percentage of income allowed for the tax could be higher for older people.

Of course health insurance companies would try to insure the healthest people, leaving the higher risk people to be insured by the government. To somewhat offset this insurance companies could be required to take a certain percentage of their customers from the government.

This type of health care system and various other types of health plans could be tried by different states. The federal government could adopt one of the best plans, then states could still opt out of the federal plan with their own plan.

This plan and tax reform measures are covered in my book, Free Markets At Home

Grady, seeing how these greedy bastards won't stop until they get every last penny, I suggest a trail of pennies as bait.

Jack, I don't think Cheney would get a fair trail here in the U.S., so maybe we should let the Iraqis do it.

D.F. We still have nothing to laugh about. Former Vice President Cheney is conducting his war crimes defense in public. I hear Rudolf Hess's Spandau cell is available, since Obama is closing Guantanamo.

I was talking to Steven Merchant tonight. He says,"Your country is ****ed up. Between the President and the ex-Vice president they don't know whether to Git-mo or Git-less."

I disagreed because Congress really got it together this week by thinking of the little guy and passing credit card reform.

So he said,"Yeah? With an unrelated clause allowing loaded concealed weapons in national parks!"

But I explained to Steven,"That's not contradictory at all. All that remains is to find a way to lure credit card issuers into the parks."

I know for the past 8 or 9 years we haven’t had much to laugh about, but come on Jack, you’re not even tryin’. You’re not supposed to analyze a joke. Who cares if it’s true or not. I made up the welts part and I truly believe (speculate) that Gannon went to the White House to see Cheney, but that doesn’t matter. Didn’t Cheney’s S&M outfit crack you up? Maybe it’s just me, but I thought it was hilarious (great artistry).

If I were your doctor, I’d prescribe 30 days of Stewie and Colbear with unlimited refills. But be careful of some of the side effects though. Laughter may not be uncommon, but if you should experience a smile lasting 4 or more hours, you may want to immediately get married (as I insinctively duck, I think, good, she (my wife) is not home).

Wip: Let's blame the pimps (owners/sponsors)and not the prostitutes (players). That's where the real money goes. Sports stars are like leaves on deciduous trees, there for a season, then shriveled and dropped. Sports salaries are fictive because of entourages and overhead, conditional agreements, media lies. Look how the sex trafficker treats his victims. (NASCAR is about to mimic steroid cartoon wrestling, with rubber-heads leaping from rolling refrigerators to fight, teaching road rage in a Prius age.)

People this is not funny!!!! We the people need to make a stand.Anyone who listens to Rush Limbaugh is the joke because they are that stupid period! I am not a democrat either.People complain about pro ball players making to much money as they are wearing that players number/jersey team name.The joke is on you because you just made him/her even more money.How about all the race tracks(nascar)ball fields(NY YANKEES) that you and I the tax payer paid for.Did you get free tickets for your family to spend quality time with or your friends!Hell no you payed payed payed many many many times over to make drug cheating AROD more money.As soon as you idiots wake up the joke is on you.How about GM&DODGE getting payouts closing dealerships and plants in the USA.They will/are building plants in CHINA and the autoworker is being asked/told to take concessions.Did AIG people take them or politicians take them HELL NO!! The joke is on us all people ha ha te he

And I thought Ari Fleischer procured him for the closeted POTUS. That's what the White House logs suggest.

A "safe, undisclosed location" was always in the SF Castro district, so that confidential access was no problem.

(If we go much farther we'll see David Icke and the Lizards.) Where is Anna D. on this matter?

I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to say you were dull. Your name is Jack and you were ragging on entertainment,so I just threw it out there.

Didn't you get my feeble attempt to compare the Geocons to the Borg?

Soooo much for no-budget comedy.

No! Obama is not Mr. Spock. Spock would have insisted that single-payer healthcare is LOGICAL. He would have had ready statistics for Jim and Bones on Afghan civilian casualties and job losses. Spock would have plotted a recovery starting with the jeopardized and not with the elite. Obama is Roddenbury, who knows a few redshirts must die each episode to maintain hegemony.

Don't think of Star Trek but of former FDA commissioner David Kessler, now hawking his weight loss book,"The End of Overeating." Why? Well, there is a parallel between food addiction caused by processed sugar-fat-salt as formulated in food like substances by corporate scientists; and the sugar-fat-salt diet for the mind as provided in scientifically packaged media. Even Moyers himself, I assert, is a virtual Jack In The Box. (See how he hawks books and hesitates to suggest action? See how he stacks the deck and evades issues? Hear the subdued and semi-obedient voices around his table?)

Yep. I work hard as a carpenter and handyman without wages for barter before I hit a computer. I eat raw foods and home baked bread. And the saddest thing I heard this week is that William Jefferson Clinton is now UN Special Commissioner to Haiti. This is the same dumbass corporate criminal who overthrew Aristide in 1993. He just wants to clean up Port au Prince enough to reopen his buddies' sweat shops. Next Predators will be striking Partners in Health's clinic on the plateau. Oops, a dissident ran in the building where 200 sick people were being treated! In ten years it will be the same show here. I'm not that dull, after all, just depressing like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. Dave Chappell is addictive! Call your 12-step sponsor for support now!

Here’s a poor comparison. Spock never had to deal with the Borg or the Geocons.

Jack Martin, yeah, those jokes were pretty stale. It was late, so I wasn’t very selective. I think Maher’s joke is still funny (I know, I know, I’m immature). I’ll try to find some better ones.

As for the “stupid mix,” personally, I need it. Without it, I’d be a nervous wreck, literally. I know it’s only medicating me and does nothing to fix the problem, but this is my only thread of hope. Now that I think of it, I’ve been lying to myself. Ten years ago, I had real hope, but now it seems to be just a fantasy. I base this on our Congress and the special interests that control them. Who’s to know if the precipice was 2 years ago, now, or 2 years from now, but as long as our faux (I’m not French, so I pronounce this as fox) representatives are defending us, hope well remain a fantasy. Now look what you have done. You’ve made me get all serious and shit, now I need to raid my son’s medicine cabinet so I can watch his Dave Chappell DVDs. Also, I couldn’t resist this, but all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

to me, the guys on the daily show and colbert give me that "ah ha, exactly" moment like a political cartoon.
but it's only "funny" if one is reasonably informed about the actual news item to which the "toon" refers.
of course, it all depends on how "dark" your glasses may be:
and as for what used to be the "radio and television correspondents" dinner? gee, i remember that event as a reason for reporters and "reportees" to get dressed up, drink a little too much, and have a good time. now it just sounds like "work." :P

I arrived on time, but had a 15 minute wait because my dinner companion was in the throes of salvaging something from his crashing computer. So I picked up the latest issue of another NYC area institution, The New Yorker, to glance through for the cartoons. A moment of confusion ensued because the printing press had malfunctioned and the issue was corrupted with repeating pages - so the cartoon was printed twice:

The King is "twittering" as the standing gaurd listens:

I want to be feared as a tyrant, loved as a father, and revered as a god, but I also want them to think I'm funny."

There's nothing funny about Washington, D.C.

It's a crashing software program with a malfunctioning printing press repeating the pages.

I can see why E.B. White (Stuart Little, Charlotte's Web)would oppose dissecting frogs. Why don't you write a humane children's book Michael and let Bill Moyers illustrate it?

Why would White write about farms and boy born a mouse? He was sick to death of adult illusions and alcohol parties. Unfortunately, pundits and comedians are making the mistake of fixation upon these foibles to the exclusion of broader analysis and diagnosis. Interesting fun-facts are failing to lead anywhere.

David F. is a genius writer, in the same league as Winship, but he jumps right in the "stupid mix" with stale jokes about has-been Limbaugh. This may be egotistical, but I believe the scant remnants of humaness and idle curiousity I retain were nurtured and survive because of books like those of E.B. White.

When oligarchical Greece was superceded by Macedonian conquest and later Rome, it took some time for the valuable literature and philosophy to be recovered. We Americans have relatively few treasures to maintain. The Daily Show and Desperate Housewives are passing fancies specific to the fall of American empire. Even the name Obama will fade and shrink with time. ("A decree went out from Caesar Obama...") We may be remembered only in folktales about talking pigs and mice. "Aren't we fine; One of a kind..."

You don't sound like a union boss, Michael. Get your head out of the celebrity punch bowl and get down to work. Critique real events and not delusional show business.

"In Washington, in response to President Obama's stimulus package, Rush Limbaugh proposed his own stimulus package. That's true. You see, that's what this country needs. What we need is a stimulus package proposed by a fat DJ. That's what's going to set the country back on track. Actually, Rush Limbaugh's stimulus package is just a package containing a big bottle of stimulants." --Craig Ferguson

"What is it with Republicans and Viagra? First Bob Dole, he was doing the ads for Viagra. Now you got Rush Limbaugh. Say what you want about Bill Clinton, but the man was always there to answer the call, ladies and gentlemen" --Jay Leno

"Rush Limbaugh and his wife are divorcing and experts say this could get ugly. I'm confused, are they splitting up or having sex?" —Craig Kilborn

"Rush Limbaugh is in trouble. Prosecutors say that they have enough evidence to put him away on 10 felony counts. This would be the biggest blow to the conservative movement since Anne Coulter announced she had a penis." —Bill Maher

"Rush Limbaugh is a drug freak. Apparently, he was able to lose the 'big fat' part but not the 'idiot' part." —Jon Stewart

"Rush Limbaugh is now in rehabilitation and it's going well. It's interesting, one minute you're Rush Limbaugh, great conservative radio talk show host, and the next day you're standing in line with other patients waiting for Darryl Strawberry's autograph." —David Letterman

"After a week of speculation in the press, Rush Limbaugh admitted that he is addicted to pain killers and I'm sorry to say, hoagies. Limbaugh blames his addiction on a botched back operation and lesbians." —Tina Fey

"Too many whites are getting away with drug use...Too many whites are getting away with drug sales...The answer is to go out and find the ones who are getting away with it, convict them, and send them up the river, too." -Rush Limbaugh (1995)

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