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Comedy has its coming out party at 1992 Democratic convention


1992 re-do: Bill, Hill and Chelsea at his nominating convention.

Note to readers: Our last in a series of national political convention look-backs journeys to 1992, when comedy made its first major impact on these quadrennial gatherings. The Democrats nominated Bill Clinton for the first time in a pre-ordained exercise in choreographed showmanship. Comedians responded by ridiculing the process on a nightly basis while old-line journalists said they really couldn’t be blamed. This article was originally published on July 16, 1992.

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
NEW YORK -- It’s a convention that has seen television screens turned into fun house mirrors.

A convention where the Comedy Central cable network has landed NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon and an array of other serious-minded politicos and media stars for its nightly two hours of coverage. And where the ubiquitous Brokaw concludes his workdays by joining Jay Leno to twit the Democrats on The Tonight Show.

Short of news and long on made-for-TV theatrics, the convention is being punched silly, often to the delight of media types who used to take these matters much more seriously.

“The problem is, this is a Super Bowl, but you know the final score,” said CNN’s Larry King, who was a guest on Comedy Central on Monday night. “I wonder what would happen if a Martian came down. What would he watch -- Comedy Central or CNN?”

Comedy Central’s Indecision ’92, anchored by Saturday Night Live’s Al Franken, has included:

***Nightly discourses on the “Don’t Know” factor by American Enterprise Institute pollster Norman Ornstein, who also dressed up as a pilgrim Tuesday night to debate the president of the Home Shopping Channel.

***Comedian Joy Behar’s live convention-site interviews with King, the Rev. Al Sharpton, former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower and McLaughlin Report host John McLaughlin, who was asked whether he wears women’s underwear.

*** Crossfire co-host Michael Kinsley’s moderating of a panel of comic impressionists.

***Republican image-maker Roger Ailes’ attempts to superimpose Bill Clinton’s head on a chicken during an interview with Franken.

Veteran NBC reporter-commentator John Chancellor, who was forcibly ejected by security guards during the 1964 Republican National Convention, says that today’s “pastel pageants of patriotism” are getting the lampooning they deserve.

“I do think that taking the news out of the convention has brought all of this on,” Chancellor said. “If the parties want to emphasize the trivial aspects, then they’re asking for it.”

Chancellor, who is retiring from NBC at the end of this year, said he “roared with laughter” Wednesday morning after reading that the Fox movie Revenge of the Nerds III had higher ratings than the convention coverage on NBC, ABC or CBS.

He said he hasn’t gotten a chance to watch Brokaw’s appearances on Tonight, “but I understand he’s been very funny.”

Brokaw’s Tuesday night Tonight schtick erased the lines between news and entertainment.

“Reporting” from NBC’s Madison Square Garden skybox, he held up a bogus New York Times front page headlining some decidedly odd political developments. Earlier, Comedy Central floor correspondent Buck Henry had used the same false-fronted Times while Brokaw was wearing his serious newsman’s hat as co-anchor of the combined NBC-PBS convention coverage.

“Some stunning political news,” Brokaw told Leno. The Times’ top story, he revealed, was Ross Perot’s decision to pick Oprah Winfrey as his running mate.

Leno rejoined, “It’s comforting to know that while the Democratic convention is going on -- which could change the fate of the nation -- the head anchorman is writing comedy bits for The Tonight Show.”

While discussing speculation that Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder was considering running with Perot, Brokaw cracked, “It might turn out that Wilder is Oprah Winfrey in drag.”

In an interview, Brokaw said that he wouldn’t be moonlighting on Tonight if the Democrats were holding more than an orchestrated pep rally for the fall campaign.

“This is a buttoned-up convention,” he said. “We all know what’s gonna happen before we get there.

“What we have here is kind of a yeasty situation in which the party is trying to redefine itself . . . My earliest memories of political coverage are Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, and David’s wonderful kind of droll observations of what was going on. So I was weaned on the attitude that it’s serious business, but not to take yourself too seriously.”

Brinkley, who is co-anchoring ABC’s convention coverage, had said he is “too busy” to be interviewed, a network publicist said. Party officials did not return calls for comment.

Other network executives say the convention still deserves to be treated as serious business. But they don’t find fault with Brokaw’s tightrope walk between the news division’s “Decision ’92” coverage and The Tonight Show.

“If some of the folks want to have a little fun at times, it seems harmless to me. It’s a zapper world we live in today, and viewers can drift or shuttle quickly from channel to channel,” said CNN vice president Ed Turner, whose network is spending $2.4 million covering the convention. “But I think they’re all smart enough to discern the difference between news and comedy. It just doesn’t trouble me.”

Clinton advisor Harry Thomason, who with his wife Linda Bloodworth-Thomason produces CBS’ Designing Women and Evening Shade, said he isn’t particularly worried about the Democrats being portrayed as buffoons on some channels.

“I even agree that the Comedy Central thing is a good idea if it gets young people to watch,” he said. “They’ll be poking fun at us, but so what?”

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net