Who is the funniest person in the US? It turns out it might be Barack Obama.
At Washington’s night of nights on May 1, at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, something strange happened. US President Barack Obama, killed. While professional comedian, Jay Leno, bombed.
The dinner for Washington insiders gives the US President a chance to shed his serious suit and become the Comedian-in-Chief. It also gives a chance for a professional comic to roast the president.
So how did Leno, a late night comedy icon who has performed stand-up for more than 30 years, get thoroughly trounced by the usually demure and sober Obama?
It turns out Obama had some help with his act. An unnamed writer from The Daily Show penned some of his jokes. The Daily Show is a late night cable news program hosted by comedian Jon Stewart. Many of the edgier jokes, which brought the house down, were Jon Stewart-style barbs which made Leno look pedestrian.
It points to a decade-long shift in American comedy, a shift that has brought forward a new generation of late-night comics who are challenging the old guard of late night hosts, Leno and David Letterman.
The new comics focus many of their jokes on the dynamic and over-the-top political arena. They joke about everything from boring congress sessions to huge foreign conflicts. They have opened up politics as a new minefield for jokes and material.
“In some respects, the heavier subjects are the ones that are most loaded with opportunity… They have the most potential energy,” Stewart told The New York Times.
The old-guard of Leno and Letterman avoid this political comedy. Their humor focuses on celebrities. When they do cover political issues, it is usually from a light and cultural angle. It is what the Daily Beast calls “offend no-one political humor”.
The Daily Show, on the other hand, delights in finding the funny in hard politics.
Stewart fields this through famous interviews with politicians. He has interviewed US Presidents, including Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. He has grilled ex-Pakistani general Pervez Musharraf and ex-British prime minister Tony Blair.
These interviews are more often than not more thought-provoking than interviews by established news journalists. Stewart’s long interviews with specialists on the financial crisis, torture, the Iraq War and Health Care have made The Daily Show, what Newsweek calls, “the coolest pit stop on television”.
It has also made Stewart an authoritative voice outside comedy. In a recent Time magazine poll, Stewart was voted the “most trusted man” in the US. He beat out mainstream newsreaders Brian Wilson and Katie Couric.
It’s no wonder Obama, with support from The Daily Show, got all the laughs and Leno was left languishing on stage. Leno’s jokes were old, stale and from an old generation. Stewart’s brand of political humor made Obama into the funniest man in the US.
All Leno could do was coyly remark, “Geez what a tough room.”