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Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy into a Joke Hardcover – March 5, 2008
by Russell Peterson (Author)
It is no coincidence that presidential candidates have been making it a point to add the late-night comedy circuit to the campaign trail in recent years. In 2004, when John Kerry decided it was time to do his first national television interview, he did not choose CBS’s 60 Minutes, ABC’s Nightline, or NBC Nightly News. Kerry picked Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. When George W. Bush was lagging in the polls, his appearance on the David Letterman Show gave him a measurable boost. Candidates for the 2008 presidential election began their late-night bookings almost as soon as they launched their campaigns.
How can this be? The reason is that polls have been consistently finding that a significant number of Americans—and an even larger proportion of those under the age of thirty—get at least some of their “news” about politics and national affairs from comedy shows. While this trend toward what some have called “infotainment” seems to herald the descent of our national discourse—the triumph of entertainment over substance—the reality, according to Russell L. Peterson, is more complex. He explains that this programming is more than a mere replacement for traditional news outlets; it plays its own role in shaping public perception of government and the political process.
From Johnny Carson to Jon Stewart, from Chevy Chase’s spoofing of President Ford on Saturday Night Live to Stephen Colbert’s roasting of President Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner, Strange Bedfellows explores what Americans have found so funny about our political institutions and the people who inhabit them, and asks what this says about the health of our democracy. Comparing the mainstream network hosts—Jay, Dave, Conan, and Johnny before them—who have always strived to be “equal opportunity offenders” to the newer, edgier crop of comedians on cable networks, Peterson shows how each brand of satire plays off a different level of Americans’ frustrations with politics.
“A cultural analysis so smart, supple, and frisky that it instantly stands as required reading for every aspiring critic in the country.” –Troy Patterson, Slate
“This book takes an insightful look at the increasingly complex media landscape, where “legitimate” cable and network journalists, cable-news pundits, and TV comedians all fall under the same category of “infotainment” and political leaders and celebrities alike are both ridiculed and revered. He also raises the question whether late-night comedians have a moral role to play as individuals who reach a mass audience with their jibes. Especially timely now that the election season is underway.” —Library Journal
“Jay Leno may be annoying, but is he a threat to American democracy? That is the eyebrow-raising charge that Russell L. Peterson levels at the host of The Tonight Show and his mainstream comedy peers in Strange Bedfellows.” –Evan Goldstein, The Chronicle Review
Praise for Strange Bedfellows
“Ever since cable TV exposed American journalism as a niche entertainment genre, comedians have rushed in to grab responsibility for safeguarding American democracy. With Letterman, Leno, Stewart, Colbert, Maher, Kimmel and the other witty white boys of the night delivering the news, it was just a matter of time before comedy reviewers caught on and accepted their new role as postmodern metajournalists. But don’t take my word for it; read Russell Peterson’s Strange Bedfellows.” –David Marc, author of Television in the Antenna Age
Must-have information presented with humor and rapid-fire wit
June 25, 2008
I enjoyed every page of this book, and for me that’s unusual. It was like reading a favorite editorial columnist’s thoughts, but on a fresh and inventive topic. Russell L. Peterson’s thoughts run toward those of political humorists in the great American tradition of serious debate infused with serious wit. His insights into television’s uneven record on political humor is well-informed and cautionary, including “mainstream” news, commentary, and political humor from Saturday Night Live to Stephen Colbert, as well as all the usual suspects of late-night “talk show” monologues. And when was the last time you read a humorous political book that was fully annotated and indexed? Strange Bedfellows is a scholarly work cleverly masquerading as a highly entertaining fun-with-politics romp. (Or maybe it’s the other way around?) No matter, entertaining it is. There are some clues modestly inserted here and there on the cover flaps that indicate what kind of chops the author has utilized to pull this off: A PhD in American Studies, real-life experience in standup comedy, political cartooning, and (this is a guess) a heckuva lot of critical T.V. viewing. Not since the late Neil Postman’s “How to Watch T.V. News” have I read anything as eye-opening about television and its subtle, maybe even unintentional, but certainly powerful affect on its viewers.