Schticking Like Improv Stand-Ups, Bush, Gore Vie for Comedy Crown

On Sunday, Nov. 5, at 9 p.m., actual Presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore will appear separately, or in split-screen format, at the beginning o f Presidential Bash 2000 , a prime-time special that will showcase political comedy from more than 25 years of Saturday Night Live .

In an opening written by SNL veterans Jim Downey and Al Franken, Mr. Bush will tell the television audience that, frankly, he felt a little “ambilavent” about introducing the special because, though he enjoys SNL , he’s often seen things on it that he considers “offensible.” Then Mr. Gore will chime in to say that he was one of the “very first” to be offended by Saturday Night Live and that he’s happy to see Mr. Bush “has joined with me in condemning it.”

This country has seen and heard a lot in the last eight years–no President has provided as much video material as our current Chief Executive–but, if memory serves correctly, we have never seen two Presidential candidates appear in prime time–less than 36 hours before the polls open–to mock themselves as part of their respective bids for the most serious job in the free world.

What kind of crazy mudslide is this? And so it would seem that getting these two powerful men, the Vice President of the United States and the governor of Texas, to engage in a bit of nationally broadcast comedic self-flagellation would have taken months of negotiation and compromise on the part of the special’s producer, Mr. Downey, and the two candidates’ handlers. Yet, by Mr. Downey’s estimation, all it took was a mere 10 days from the moment the first requests were made to the day that the two candidates arrived, about 45 minutes apart, at Studio 8-H at Rockefeller Center, to tape their respective segments while members of the press corps watched.

“I never thought at any stage that it would actually happen,” Mr. Downey said. “We certainly thought we could get some politicians, Bob Dole or somebody who’s beyond being punished by the voters.” But he figured that anyone up for election, “least of all people running for President,” were out of the question.

So Mr. Downey was “shocked” when the first response from the Bush and Gore camps was, in his own words, “Sounds good. We’d like to see a script.” Which was hardly a tall order: “You have to do that if you want to get [former Diff'rent Strokes star] Gary Coleman,” Mr. Downey observed.

The Presidential Bash segment was only one part of a day that both candidates spent–in a state that does not represent crucial campaigning grounds for either of them–reeling off punch lines and bon mots for the press to bring to the public. From SNL , Mr. Bush went on to a tape The Late Show with David Letterman and then to the annual Alfred E. Smith dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, where he and Mr. Gore met face-to-face for the last time in the campaign and took turns making fun of themselves and splattering each others’ white-tie-clad facades with jokes provided by their respective comedy cabinets.

Anyone who has caught their crisp, funny performances on C-Span will be left with the strange feeling that, somewhere along the 2000 campaign trail, these two men became convinced that they have to be able to work their constituency the way that Howie Mandel used to work the crowd at Caroline’s.

Comedy writer Mark Katz, who called himself a member of the “comedy cabinet” that helped Mr. Gore write his Smith dinner speech, updated the late New York Times columnist James Reston’s line about the 1960 election being less a matter of who “would stand up to Khruschev than who could sit down with Jack Paar.” “Now that the Cold War is over,” said Mr. Katz, “you don’t have to stare down Khruschev or Mao, you’ve got to chat up Leno and Oprah.”

But it’s moved beyond that in recent weeks. Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush are making fun of their own public personae in ways that far exceed Richard Nixon’s “Sock it to me ?” on Laugh-In in 1968. Bill Clinton may have played the saxophone on Arsenio Hall’s show, but it’s really difficult to think of a moment when he engaged in the kind of masochistic self-deprecation that the candidates have toward the end of this campaign.

Perhaps that’s because the tragi-comedy that Mr. Clinton gave the country had to have occurred before Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore could actually engage in this fall’s bipartisan vaudeville routine that, in this moment of Clintonian prosperity, makes the election appear to be one gigantic postmodern joke. Robert Smigel, who created the Clutch Cargo political caricatures on Late Night with Conan O’Brien , has his own show on Comedy Central and recently co-wrote X-Presidents (Random House), a book-length graphic novel based on his SNL cartoon of the same name. “You know, everybody has turned into David Letterman in the last 20 years, only not as funny,” he said. “And that combined with post-Watergate cynicism and post-blowjob cynicism have resulted in the public being torn between taking their future seriously and making wisecracks about ‘the Moron’ and ‘the Robot,'” and here he is referring to, respectively, Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore.

After the Democratic convention, Mr. Smigel said, Mr.Gore was seen as “the lovable Robot, who kissed his wife and was humble about his robotic ways.” That was until, he said, the Republicans seized on Mr. Gore’s tendency to exaggerate and turned him into “the Lying Robot. And the press has run with it, because the lies that he’s been caught doing are easier to digest and understand than the traditional lies that politicians do all day long every day of the week, from now until eternity.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush has “made himself a Lovable Moron,” Mr. Smigel said. “He’s made aw-shucks jokes about his inability to pronounce things and sort of taken the sting off the moronicism by joking about it. Something that [Dan] Quayle was never really able to do successfully.

“Normally, I laugh about this kind of thing,” Mr. Smigel said. “Indeed, X-Presidents is based on our country’s willingness to reduce important people into catch-phrases and buzzwords and slogans and lazy perceptions.” For those who somehow haven’t managed to see the X-Presidents cartoon on SNL , Mr. Smigel and his cohorts transform the likes of Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, George Bush and Gerald Ford, the former leaders of the free world, into indefatigable, ass-kicking superheroes devoted to wiping out nasty foreigners. But in real life, Mr. Smigel said that he’s “stunned” and “embarrassed” that Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush are “falling all over themselves to be on television,” in essence confirming the Moron and Robot caricatures.

“I mean, when Clinton went on Arsenio , he was in third place, and it was just a very carefully chosen moment,” Mr. Smigel said. “And, now these guys … they’re over-thinking, especially Gore. I think they just overthink the importance of the media and they empower it. When the Gore aide actually said to the press that the Saturday Night Live sketch was played in front of Gore, that was a terrible thing to do because it just empowers the moronic pundits who talk about the debate into thinking that their opinions matter and that the late-night talk shows matter.

“There’s nothing worse than seeing a comic or comedy writer suddenly get serious and discuss his impact on things,” Mr. Downey said. Still, the candidates’ schticky behavior of the last few weeks cannot be discussed without it. The skit left viewers with a memorable one-word summation of each man’s candidacy: Mr. Bush, played Will Ferrell, defined his with “strategery”; Mr. Gore, an overly rouged Darrell Hammond, with “lock box.” The New York Times put a story about the sketch on its front page. On MSNBC, West Wing executive producer Lawrence O’Donnell called Mr. Downey’s sketch “the most important political writing of this election year.” And President Clinton saw it and rang up Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley to insist that the Vice President see it. Indeed, some ascribed Mr. Gore’s docile performance in the second debate to the sketch.

Mr. Downey said that, in his opinion, voters “don’t need to think the candidates have a great sense of humor or are funny. They like to think of them as personable and warm and friendly, and I think that they could probably get that point across in other ways. But the moment that one candidate says, ‘Hey, I’ll do Letterman,’ then the other guy has to either go on or cede that territory.” In an election as close as this, he said, “they could tighten up and not take chances, but this time they seem to be willing to go anywhere or do anything that might put them in contact with some new voters.”

And so, on Oct. 19, in the chill of Rockefeller Plaza’s fabled Studio 8-H, the two candidates’ camps reviewed the scripts proposed for the Presidential Bash spot. Mr. Gore’s campaign aides scrutinized the words Mr. Bush was asked to say as closely as the counterpunches and requisite sighs that Gore was asked to deliver. The Bush aides undertook the same intense review.

Gripes arose. The Bush camp wanted to know how come Mr. Gore got more laugh lines? Mr. Gore’s handlers contended that the script called on the Vice President to take self-deprecation one joke too far. The rivals were spinning the same issue two different ways. Mr. Gore got more air time, even if at his own expense.

The Gore staff had prepared for the event in conference calls, sometimes six on a line with campaign aides noting logistics, Franken adding lines and stagecraft tips. Mr. Downey said, in his zeal to get Mr. Gore, he gave his handlers a couple of jokes for the Smith dinner. One of them, he said, was the line that those who accused Mr. Gore of exaggeration were, as he recounted it, “nothing less than enemies of our country.” Mr. Katz also pushed for jokes at Mr. Gore’s expense (although he denied this), and Kristin Gore, daughter No. 2 and a comedy writer for Fox’s Futurama , decreed what her dad would or wouldn’t say or do.

The two candidates never saw each other at the taping. Mr. Gore’s motorcade arrived first, and the Vice President proceeded to the eighth floor, where he complimented Mr. Hammond on his aping abilities. But in reading the TelePrompTer, Mr. Gore dumped a joke in which he is called on to introduce himself as the Democratic nominee with an insistent extra résumé line: “And currently I’m Vice President.”

The taping finished up after Mr. Gore delivered a few trademark harrumphs in response to Mr. Bush’s assertions of honor and integrity. An early script had called for the candidates to shout the “Live from New York, It’s …” intro, but Mr. Gore’s camp had argued against it. So the skit ends with both candidates agreeing that it would be unpresidential to utter the catch phrase.

Minutes later, Mr. Bush landed at the same 49th Street curbside that Mr. Gore had just left. The Texas governor entered the studio and gave tentative kudos to his doppelgänger , Mr. Ferrell, and a longer audience to Dana Carvey, who played his father, George Herbert Walker Bush and said in character, “I love my son.”

George W. then declared himself “One-Take Bushie,” admitted he hadn’t rehearsed and flubbed three times his scripted mispronunciation of “ambilavent.” It kept coming out, correctly, as “ambivalent,” lending credence to those reports of dyslexia. “So much for One-Take Bushie!” said Bush communications chief Karen Hughes to a group of pool reporters in the studio audience, and Mr. Bush looked up and wrinkled his brow at the chuckles that came from the peanut gallery.

Mr. Bush and his crew then ventured to Seventh Avenue and The Late Show ‘s set at the Ed Sullivan Theater. The press pool was sent to an eighth-floor office to watch the taping on closed-circuit TV. What they saw was Mr. Letterman come out swinging, going into a tough digression on the death penalty in Texas. At one point, he asked Mr. Bush: “Do you know more about this than I do?” Mr. Bush volleyed back when he could, but stayed up on the balls of his feet, resorting to declaring, “Our society is a society that’s a society of law.”

But, surprisingly, Mr. Letterman did not ease up: He stayed on Mr. Bush through three segments of tough questions. By the end, Mr. Letterman was grilling Mr. Bush on how he would respond to the terrorists who had attacked the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen; it felt more like Meet the Press than high ironic comedy.

What did Mr. Bush’s vague, tough-sounding stance really mean? Mr. Letterman asked. “That means they’re not going to like what happens to them,” Mr. Bush said. “Is that retaliation or the due process of law?” Mr. Letterman asked. Suddenly, the roles of interviewer and subject seemed to have switched. Mr. Bush was sounding like shoot-from-the-hip late-night guy and Mr. Letterman was sounding like, well, Richard Holbrooke. Then Mr. Letterman moved on to Bosnia and Rwanda. “There’s hate. There’s still hate in the world. People hate each other,” Mr. Bush said. Mr. Letterman leapt back in and asked about exploratory drilling in the Arctic. Then he asked about Houston’s air pollution.

“That was the hardest-hitting interview on the death penalty he’s ever given,” said one attentive, long-serving journalist when it was over. After months of barely on-the-record banter with the press corps, Mr. Bush had recently stopped his back-of-the-plane chats and thrice-weekly press conferences. Mr. Letterman had squeezed seven follow-ups on tough topics, while the pool reporters barely get one or two in their interactions with Mr. Bush.

When Mr. Downey heard about the interview, he said he was surprised that Mr. Letterman, for whom he once served as head writer, “did a surprising kind of serious take.… And knowing Letterman, it really surprised me. I’m hearing it third-hand, but I have to believe that when I see it, there will be a level of irony to it that maybe some other people missed, or they were trying too hard to interpret it as a sudden serious take.”

But, in fact, there was no irony in Mr. Letterman’s interview of Mr. Bush, which is what made it notable. Mr. Letterman may have understood that Mr. Bush long ago absorbed the ironic atmosphere that Mr. Letterman had created, and decided to one-up him with sincerity.

Sensibility, as Mr. Smigel pointed out, is one thing that Mr. Letterman has always understood. And so, in his own way, he may have been speaking for all the people whom he sensed were just … damn … sick of the joke. Indeed, Mr. Smigel said, if he had his way, the candidates would meet again in a sketch he’d like to write where “all the candidates are in the Green Room of Queen Latifah or something,” he said, imagining a scene with the talk-show hostess. “They’re all practicing. Joe Lieberman gets bumped by a comedian or something. And Al Gore is practicing balancing a spoon on his nose. They’re falling all over themselves to look human and have a sense of humor.

“That’s the saddest thing, when I hear undecideds talking in those moronic forums after the focus groups. It’s like, ‘Well, he seems more trustworthy,'” Mr. Smigel added. “Just shut the fuck up. Neither one of them is trustworthy. Can we just put that aside? Nobody’s trustworthy. Let’s just start there and take that one off the table. Just move on!”