Strange Bedfellows


Russell Peterson

Publication Year





Rutgers University Press

Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy into a Joke Hardcover – March 5, 2008

by Russell Peterson

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.

Editorial Reviews


“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

From the Back Cover

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

Product details

  • Hardcover: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Rutgers University Press (March 5, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0813542847
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813542843
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 0.8 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces

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