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How Does Comedy Influence Politics?

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Political comedy is everywhere these days, from The Colbert Report, to SNL skits, to political ads on YouTube. Lizz Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show, and Adam McKay, creator of the recent McCain/Paris Hilton ad, weigh in on the relationship between politicians and the comedians who mock them.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Political jokes are probably as old as politics, but ever since Chevy Chase stumbled across the stage on "Saturday Night Live" when he played President Gerald Ford, there's been a new tone. And these days, of course, politicians themselves are eager to get in on the joke. Bill Clinton played the sax on "Arsenio," John McCain is practically a regular on "The Daily Show," and tonight, NBC- TV's "Last Comic Standing" plays recorded bits from both of the major-party presidential nominees. Here's John McCain's.

(Soundbite of TV show "Last Comic Standing," August 7, 2008)

(Soundbite of music)

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; 2008 Presumptive Republican Presidential Nominee): A president has to be funny.

(Soundbite of cartoon noises)

Sen. MCCAIN: They just have to be. Unfunny presidents only serve one term, if they win an election at all. I may not be the last comic standing, but I'm definitely the funniest candidate for president.

(Soundbite of record scratch)

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, funny looking.

Sen. MCCAIN: Who said that?

CONAN: And here's Barack Obama's.

(Soundbite of TV show "Last Comic Standing," August 7, 2008)

(Soundbite of song "Hail to the Chief")

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democratic, Illinois; 2008 Presumptive Democratic Presidential Nominee): Hi. I'm Barack Obama, and I'm running for president of the United States. Remember to vote for me in November. And if you don't think I'm funny, you've obviously never seen me bowl.

(Soundbite of gutter ball)

(Soundbite of crowd sighing)

Sen. OBAMA: I'm not going to deliver this line any better than that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Which goes to prove that while comedy is hard, political comedy is harder. But how much does comedy actually affect politics? Does a drumbeat of dumb jokes about President Bush create an image, reinforce it, or just reflect what the audience thinks already? We'll talk with a co-creator of "The Daily Show" and with a veteran political comedy writer, and one of the writers and the directors of the movie, "Step Brothers." Later in the program, we'll talk with a former federal prosecutor who's now a defense attorney about the strengths and the weaknesses in the government's case against Bruce Ivins, the alleged anthrax killer.

But first, how does comedy influence your impression of a politician? Be specific, please. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. And with us here in Studio 3A is Lizz Winstead, a comedian, the host of "Thinking & Drinking," and co-creator of "The Daily Show." And Lizz Winstead, thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. LIZZ WINSTEAD (Co-creator, "The Daily Show"): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And in your experience, do you think comedy affects politics?

Ms. WINSTEAD: I'm not sure it affects politics as much as it certainly does. I think the three things you laid out, it certainly can reinforce some things people are thinking. I think that it can engage people in thinking about politics. If you can disarm someone with humor, normally, they think, you know what? I might like this person. This person seems kind of nice. They generally might at least listen to your point of view rather than shutting you out. And I think that - I just think it's a good way to approach sometimes even really tough issues, because you can get people engaged in a conversation through humor.

CONAN: And it could also make politicians look a little bit more human when they go on and make fun of themselves. Going back as far as Richard Nixon's "sock it to me" on "Laugh-In."

Ms. WINSTEAD: It's true, but I feel, as we just heard, two very unfunny...

CONAN: Pretty lame bits...

Ms. WINSTEAD: Pieces on both of those candidates. And as we saw...

CONAN: It's a good thing nobody watches that show.

Ms. WINSTEAD: That's exactly right. And you know, it's pretty incredible, but conversely, you've got Adam coming on, who did the hilarious Paris Hilton thing, who actually - we finally have heard an energy policy platform come out of Paris Hilton's mouth written by a comedy writer that has been more succinct than either two candidates have given us. So, it's a pretty interesting time we're living in.

CONAN: Yet - well, the program that you had such a large part in crafting, "The Daily Show," there are studies that show 39 percent of young people get their news from programs like that.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Well, I know, and people always say, do you feel a little bit freaked out by that? And I always say the same thing. I think it's a little bit twofold. I think, in order to enjoy "The Daily Show," you have to come to it with some information, because it's often responding to the news rather than breaking news. But I think that if you were to fact check "The Daily Show," they get it right most of the time, you know? It's pretty much, they lay out the story as is and it's pretty hard-pressed to say, well, that didn't happen unless it's obviously big and satirical, but I'm glad they're getting it from there than from other certainly - some other sources of news.

CONAN: And we've spoken, in the process of researching for this show, with TV producers who say politicians really fight to get on these kinds of shows because it makes them look more human.

Ms. WINSTEAD: It's true. They - anybody, you know - "The Daily Show" gets its pick. They aren't begging politicians to come on. They get their pick. And you know, sometimes I think they're fooled, but Jon is really smart, and I think a lot of people think this is the softball - you know, we hear a lot of this term, low-info voter, where people get their information about politics through what they call low sources of information, "American Idol," talk shows like "Tyra Banks," etc. And I think they think that "The Daily Show" might be a softball show, but as it turns out, you know, Jon is anything but. He's funny, and he's also really smart and wants some answers.

CONAN: And he wants some answers because he'll throw you a few waist-high fastballs and try to make you look funny and human, but he'll slip you a zinger, too.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Yeah. And I think once you seem human, then it seems OK to ask the hard questions, and I think the politicians forget about that.

CONAN: We want some listeners to join the conversation. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. How has politics affected your view of - excuse me - comedy affected your view of politics? Going to get that right sooner or later.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And specifically, how. Give us an example, please, 800-989-8255. E-mail us talk@npr.org. Abby is on the line, Abby calling us from Polson in Montana.

ABBY (Caller): Hi. I was just - what a great idea for a show, simply because comedy and politics are so intertwined. I am just reminded of when I watched "Saturday Night Live" with Janet Reno, and before, I had been absolutely terrified of this woman because she is critical and severe-looking, a little bit austere. But then for her to do a, you know, 180 and, you know, just snap on out of it on such a good platform as "Saturday Night Live." It was - I enjoyed that a lot, and it definitely affected my view of her as a politician.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Are you talking about when she broke through the wall and Janet Reno's party machine?

ABBY: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. WINSTEAD: We should clarify that for people. Janet Reno apparently loves to dance. Now, who would know? And so, what they did, if you didn't see the episode, was they have Janet Reno's party machine, and they had done it where there was big party, and I'm sure one of the cast members dressed just like her.

CONAN: Dana Carvey was a running character - she was a running character, part of his repertoire.

Ms. WINSTEAD: So, the real Janet Reno comes bursting through the door like the old Kool-Aid commercial and starts dancing wildly to disco music. You know what? It does humanize someone dramatically, and that was huge for her, yeah.

ABBY: Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: And thanks very much for the call, Abby. And do you, as you're making fun of politicians, though, do you worry about being balanced? It's - you know, if you're - if we're in the middle of a presidential race, do you try to make sure you take enough shots at both sides?

Ms. WINSTEAD: I just - I always - it's a little complicated, because what you have to do with comedy is you have to be able - you can't explain the joke. So, you know, Dick Cheney shoots a guy in the face, right? That's out there in the vernacular. You can start from that point and move forward.

CONAN: And that will run and run and run.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Exactly. And so the trick for the satirist is, we can only be as good as the media gives us information, because if the public doesn't know the story, that makes it tricky. So, for me, I'm as balanced as I can be with the information I'm given. The good news is that powerful people usually - sometimes use their power for bad. You know, I know that's a shocking statement.

CONAN: I never heard that before.

Ms. WINSTEAD: I know. I'm breaking news, actually, right here on National Public Radio; I'm thrilled. So, it's pretty easy to be equal opportunity when we're talking about people who feel that they are the most qualified to rule the world.

CONAN: Do you worry about, for example, making old jokes about John McCain? And which are OK and which aren't?

Ms. WINSTEAD: You know, I think it's interesting. I think that - I often wonder if John McCain's goofy policy decisions are based on his age or just goofy policy decisions. I happen to think he's kind of a goofball, I'm not sure it is about age, although I do - when my father retired, he did have many of the same qualities as John McCain, just not publicly. So, maybe part of it has to do with his age and part of it has to do with just being a goofball, you know?

CONAN: Let's talk with Erica, Erica with us from Talkeetna in Alaska.

ERICA (Caller): Hi. I think that when politicians make jokes or use some comedy, it makes me feel that they're more - they're not as elite, that they're like us, the average American that just cracks jokes and has fun, and you know...

CONAN: Particularly if they have fun at their own expense.

ERICA: Especially at their own expense, because they realize that, look, you know, we mess up, too. We're not perfect. We're not above reproach. We're not above just acting silly like everybody else.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Right, right.

CONAN: And you then get questions about, well, at which point - and thanks very much for the call, Erica - at which point you stop looking, well, presidential - the boxers-briefs question to President Clinton.

Ms. WINSTEAD: I think that's right. And at what point do you just get tired and rote? I mean, really, Barack Obama, the bowling thing again?

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. WINSTEAD: You know, and I think it was an interesting discussion when The New Yorker cartoon cover came out because...

CONAN: That was the one with Michelle and Barack Obama and sort of - he in Muslim regalia, she in '60s radical regalia, bumping fists, the Constitution burning in the fireplace, that sort of thing.

Ms. WINSTEAD: With Osama bin Laden hanging over the mantel. And to me, everybody was asking, the dialogue was sort of, was this OK? Should this have been done? Was it appropriate? And really, it is really the obvious, crazy, bad reporting that had been done on this man, and this was sort of a commentary on that.

CONAN: A lampoon of that.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Yeah, a lampoon of that. And there was never any discussion of him commenting on the lampoon of that saying, this is exactly what I've been going through, being portrayed like this. It just was all about whether it was OK to put it on there. And I'm sad that that other conversation didn't happen more.

CONAN: On the other hand, as somebody who - a comedy creator, isn't that the moment you want to get when the entire country is talking about your stuff?

Ms. WINSTEAD: Absolutely! Oh, my God, you've got to run with it. You would think so, right? Sometimes, and that's why it's so surprising to me, when you look at political advisers, and again, I go back to two campaigns where people feel lost in not knowing whether these candidates really believe in what they're going for the country, and then you have Adam McKay putting a policy into Paris Hilton's mouth. Where are we at? I just - it's so funny to me.

CONAN: Jennifer is on the line, Jennifer calling us from Cincinnati.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks, for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JENNIFER: I don't look at comedy as being informative. Generally, I do hear things on the news before I, you know, hear them on "SNL." What I notice now, you know, not basing my decision on the comedy of the real lives of these politicians, as much as it affects their legacy. I mean, you look back at Dan Quayle with, you know, misspelling potatoes, and you look at George Bush with the strategery - these are things I remember even after the candidates or politicians are long gone.

CONAN: And they do get looped, and looped, and looped, and looped again.

JENNIFER: Mm-hm. And I really feel that the success of a comic is just how long we, you know, remain quoting them, and you know, I recognize Ross Perot's voice more from "SNL" than I did from Ross Perot.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Yeah.

CONAN: And another generation would remember Will Rogers, his political jokes, rather gentle by modern standards.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Yes.

CONAN: Nevertheless, at the time, they were pretty funny. Never belonged to any organized party, I'm a Democrat. Anyway, Jennifer, thanks very much for your call.

JENNIFER: Thanks.

CONAN: We're talking with Lizz Winstead, the co-creator of "The Daily Show." She is a comedian and now the host of "Thinking & Drinking ." When we come back, we're going to be talking with Adam McKay, yes, about his Paris Hilton spot, but also more about the subject. Does comedy help shape your view of politics and politicians? Join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. John McCain and Barack Obama have appeared on "Leno," "Letterman," "The Daily Show" and "Saturday Night Live," among other comedy TV shows, and we're not even to the conventions yet. Obviously, politicians themselves think comedy can help shape people's opinions. When has comedy influenced your impression of a politician or of politics? Be specific, please. 800-989-8255. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. You can also trade stories on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Lizz Winstead is with us. She is a comedian, the host of "Thinking & Drinking," and co-creator of "The Daily Show." And here is an e-mail we have from Jay in Berlin, Germany. Programs such as "The Daily Show" and the "Colbert Report," as you alluded to in the introduction, rather than injecting comedy or wry cynicism into politics, simply amplify a widely, widely shared, default political cynicism to which we've grown so depressingly habituated. As Homer Simpson would say, it's funny because it's true. Do you think that's right?

Ms. WINSTEAD: I mean, I think that you can say that. I also think it also heightens the hypocrisy of where we're at. Both of those shows, let's not forget, focus as much on the media as they do on politicians and, you know, the information gathering and where we've gone. And I'll never forget on "The Daily Show," one of the most influential things for me was when they did Bush debating himself. And they did two debates of Bush taking policy decisions and contradicting himself. And it was really a clever, great thing to do. So, I think showing hypocrisy of the powerful is always good. And I think "The Daily Show" does it very well, and Colbert does it very well. And you know, I think it's a time-honored tradition.

CONAN: Yet, doesn't the idea behind that - which is kind of, well, they're all idiots, aren't they really? - lead to being cynical about politics?

Ms. WINSTEAD: I think for me, what leads us to be more cynical about politics is the way that the reporting of politics has gone. You know, you look at cable news and stuff. I think that people do feel frustrated that they're not getting deeper and more interesting stories. You know, if it bleeds, it leads, and stuff like that. I think they feels like these comedy shows, Bill Maher included in all of this, are really sort of the ones telling some of the bigger stories, maybe through humor, but they're the ones keeping them alive sometimes.

CONAN: Let's get Don on the line. Don' s calling us from Detroit.

DON (Caller): Yeah, hi. This is Don. I don't agree sometimes with the way comedians can change the elections outcome just by propagating a lie. I hate to be sour still about the 2000 election, but when Gore said that him and Clinton promoted the Internet and the Republicans took it and ran with it and said that he invented the Internet, and every comedian in the country took that and propagated the lie, I think that hurt. I mean, there are a lot of people that take respected comedians, such as Jay Leno and the rest of them, they take their word as gospel. And he never said that.

CONAN: And so, you think that may have cost him the election?

DON: Oh, I think it definitely could have swayed a few people that really weren't up on what was actually said. Yes, I do.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Well, I think the comedians are responding to what the media tells them. If the media keeps repeating over and over again the lie, and then the comedians repeat the lie, you know, where does the lie start? It starts with the information givers, not the comics, I think.

CONAN: Don, thanks. Well, go ahead, got a response?

DON: No, thank you very much.

CONAN: All right, Don, thanks very much for the call. And joining us now from the studios at KTLA Television in Los Angeles is Adam McKay, cofounder of funnyordie.com, the writer and director of "Step Brothers" starring Will Ferrell and John C. Riley, also the man behind Paris Hilton's new energy plan and her campaign ad. And Adam, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. ADAM MCKAY (Writer and Director, "Step Brothers;" Cofounder, funnyordie.com): It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And has comedy ever influenced your view of politics or politicians?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCKAY: Well, you know, sadly, I think we kind of hit a point a couple of years back where Jon Stewart and Steve Colbert became the best news on television. So, I would say yes. There's a lot of information I was getting from those shows and from Jon Stewart that were being ignored in the corporate media.

CONAN: And as the example of the Paris Hilton spot, and we have the full clip on our Web site, if anybody wants to go see it.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Adam, it's fabulous.

CONAN: In the unlikely event that anybody hasn't seen it already, go to npr.org/talk and take a look at it. But tell us how that came about. Of course, Paris Hilton was mentioned in a John McCain ad that, well, I guess was making fun of Barack Obama's celebrity.

Mr. MCKAY: Yeah. Basically, I, you know, like everyone in the country, had seen this ad and just thought it was the most ridiculous sort of pandering ad you could ever imagine. And you know, I mean, this is arguably the most important presidential election in our nation's history. So, the idea that, you know, this was the tone and this was the subject he was talking about, just - I thought was just so ridiculous.

And the immediate thought is, well, someone has to answer back to this, and it's got to be Paris Hilton. And so a couple of hours later, I got her on the phone, and she was game, and she got the joke of it, and I wrote it up really fast, and we had one of our producers and cameramen fly out to the Hamptons and shot it with her, and then, day after that, we had it up on the site.

CONAN: Here's an excerpt from the now notorious Paris Hilton video.

(Soundbite of funnyordie.com online video)

(Soundbite of song "America the Beautiful")

Ms. PARIS HILTON (Star, "The Simple Life"): Hey, America. I'm Paris Hilton, and I'm a celebrity, too. Only I'm not from the olden days, and I'm not promising change like that other guy. I'm just hot. But then that wrinkly white-haired guy used me in his campaign ad, which I guess means I'm running for president. So, thanks for the endorsement, white-haired dude, and I want America to know that I'm, like, totally ready to lead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It's just - it has been easily the best political commercial of this campaign season.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Yeah.

Mr. MCKAY: It's sad. It's sad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WINSTEAD: What was so crazy about it, too, is, you know, it's part of the things that everybody who feels upset about the way the government has gone is that the media's focus on celebrities. So, to announce that Barack Obama is a celebrity makes Americans set up and take notice more of Barack Obama. Oh, maybe I like him more now. He's a celebrity.

Mr. MCKAY: I thought that was the case with the Moses ad, too.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Right!

Mr. MCKAY: I thought, well, wait, how is this negative against Barack? Comparing him to like, you know, the guy who brought the Ten Commandments down from the mountain, like, how is that an insult?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WINSTEAD: It's pretty crazy.

CONAN: Well, also the comparison - it was just a little weird, the, you know, Charlton Heston, you can take these tablets out of my cold, dead hands!

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You've also, though, on FunnyOrDie, made some fun of Barack Obama, and let's listen to this spot from - well, I guess it's called "Obama-sistible."

(Soundbite of funnyordie.com online video "Obama-sistible")

(Soundbite of song "Simply Irresistible")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Barack Obama is how you say his name. Bringing America his message of change. He used to look good to me, But now I find him, Barack Obama-sistible! Barack Obama-sistible!

CONAN: And was that one of the ones as soon as you realized it scanned right, you couldn't resist it?

Mr. MCKAY: You know, actually I didn't write that. That's a comedian by the name of John Glazer, Tom Janis, and some friends did that. But I think it's making the same joke we were making with the Paris Hilton one, which is turning politics into this celebrity-tabloid culture, which, as we know, that's what generates the ratings. So, the news almost has to have their politicians be celebrities or else they're not going to get good ratings. So, I think they were making the same joke, just about a different candidate.

CONAN: And I have to ask you both. In this particular campaign season, we have seen much more energy about politics, huge unprecedented turnout at all of the caucuses and primary elections throughout this entire year. In August, is there anything else to talk about?

Ms. WINSTEAD: There'll be plenty. I mean, what - you know, I think the fact that the Democratic primary went on so long, I think that we are going to have plenty to talk about, because I think Americans for the first time are just hearing about John McCain in a real way. So, I think we're going to have lots more to have fun with.

Mr. MCKAY: Oh, yeah. There's plenty of good stuff to be uncovered.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Yeah. I do not feel scared about Bush leaving. I'm actually psyched to have a new person to kick around. I don't know about you, Adam.

CONAN: New material.

Mr. MCKAY: I am - could not be happier. I have the countdown calendar over my toilet of each day, counting down until Bush leaves. So, I could not be happier, although McCain's scaring the heck out of me. So, we'll see. We'll see.

CONAN: In the search for material, though, do either of you have favorite candidates for the treasured position of vice-presidential candidate?

Ms. WINSTEAD: Yeah. Mitt Romney. For sure, Mitt Romney.

CONAN: Why is Mitt Romney funny?

Ms. WINSTEAD: I think because his hypocrisy just goes beyond the pale, and the whole tying-your-dog-to-the-roof-of-your-car story is just something that needs to be talked about over and over and over again. And I think we need a Mormon in the vice-presidential mansion. I think it's good for America.

CONAN: Adam McKay?

Mr. MCKAY: Yeah, he is - I agree. Mitt Romney is a comic gem. He seems like the most likely VP to get Botox.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Yeah.

Mr. MCKAY: And that's always a good thing. And I just get the feeling that he's - I think he smiles when he sleeps.

Ms. WINSTEAD: I completely agree, because he sleeps on a bed of money.

Mr. MCKAY: Yup.

CONAN: Let's get Josh on the line, Josh is calling us from Phoenix, Arizona.

JOSH (Caller): Hi. How are you guys?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

JOSH: I just want to say I'm a big fan of NPR, and I like the program. So, anyway, I guess comedy has just helped me realize how much having faith in politicians like Bush and some of his other cohorts have made me realize that you shouldn't - and not only that, but they are ridiculous and...

CONAN: Josh, I have to say, you sound a little bit like a convert.

JOSH: Well, I am, because I've been voting against Democrats since '92 when I could first vote. And this will be the first election that I have been - I have voted for anybody but a white Protestant, and I'm hoping to be proud to do so.

CONAN: Well, I guess, Lizz Winstead, that somebody's whose view of politics has been shaped a little bit by humor.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Wow. That's something, all right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WINSTEAD: I mean, I guess I feel like, you know, anybody - having faith in politicians, I don't mean to sound cynical, but I've never had faith in politicians. And so, for me, it's always been pointing out hypocrisy wherever it come down my path instead of, you know ...

CONAN: Swinging one way or the other.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Yes. They tell you not to kiss a hooker, and they tell you not to have faith in a politician, and I think both of that - things are smart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOSH: Well, just growing up in that part of a country where faith is, you know, a large part of life in general, a church on every corner, per se, and then moving away from that to California and to, you know, a couple of other states, has opened my eyes to see people in a different view, and you know, of all race and walks of life, per se, and I just appreciate what comedy can actually bring to the table.

CONAN: Josh, thanks very much.

Mr. MCKAY: So, I think Josh just - Josh hit on a key, which is travel.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Yes.

Mr. MCKAY: I think travel is the key to progress. If everyone in the red states went to Europe for two weeks, it would transform this country.

Ms. WINSTEAD: It's really true. My nephew, who is 18 years old, went for two weeks to work in a hospital in Nepal. And he came back and now he's this anti-China, like, kid who would, like, couldn't be more interested in international affairs, just for spending two weeks in a poverty-stricken country that's under repressive regime, boom, done.

CONAN: Mm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's talk with Cody. Cody is with us from Denver, Colorado.

CODY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, there.

CODY: Well, actually, my comment was, I'm originally from Idaho and from an area where it's chiefly conservative but a lot of political views are taking either off of Fox or NPR. But I...

CONAN: Neither noted for their humor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CODY: I had a - I'm in Denver now. I had a lot of friends who were going to vote for Ralph Nader. And at the time I've, you know, kept telling them that, in my opinion, they were pulling away votes from both parties because Ralph Nader was essentially - might been it was - we're not a three-party system yet. So, it was funny, because they never listened to me and we were all political students.

And it wasn't until they saw Bill Maher actually begging Ralph Nader not to run that they took notice. And it was weird because we'd watch the same political programs, studied the same political stuff, but it was Bill Maher begging Ralph Nader on his show not to run that actually swayed their opinion of whether or not Ralph Nader was, you know, a viable option. And I just always thought that was - that, to me, was a big, pivotal thing, because comedy, you know, it's always been a big thing for me, but they actually took note of that. And...

CONAN: May not have been Bill's most hilarious moment, but...

CODY: No. But it was just strange to me because it had always been a weird political discussion for us.

CONAN: Sure.

CODY: And it took Bill Maher for them to actually open up and think about it.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Cody. We're talking about the influence of comedy on politics with Adam McKay, co-founder of funnyordie.com, and with Lizz Winstead, the co-creator of "The Daily Show" and host of "Thinking & Drinking with Lizz Winstead." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

An e-mail from Elaine in Middleton, Wisconsin. Much comedy depends on cultural stereotypes, whether it is jokes at fat people for overeating, or jokes about the wife as a nag, etc. Obviously, many of these depend as well on cultural stereotypes about gender, race, et cetera. How does our sensitivity to such issues make certain jokes off limits, or certain people off limits, i.e., Barack Obama? Well, Adam McKay, we just played one of the bits that you have on your site about Barack Obama, but some things are definitely off limits, aren't they?

Mr. MCKAY: Well, yeah. I always say when it comes to, you know, certain kinds of jokes, you know, if you're going to joke about someone's skin color or their weight, it's not so much not doing it because it's insensitive, which certainly is, you know, the main thing, but it also is just not funny. It's not the most insightful joke to make, the fact that someone has, you know, just so happens to have a little more pigmentation or their hair looks a certain way, it's just not that interesting to me. So, that would be the reason not to do it. It's just not very insightful.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Unless you're going to do it satirically, you're going to become the lambasting racist who is...

CONAN: Well, sort of that Colbert character.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Yes. Pointing out that these would be detrimental then, but you're right, I think it's lazy. And when you look especially at Obama and Hillary Clinton and John McCain, there's a lot of things to talk about with these people who - that have nothing to do with their gender. And you know, even Bill Clinton, I mean, it was so tiring when that Lewinsky deal happened, because there was still lots of stuff to talk about with Clinton satirically about his policies, and we just went back to that same sex well, and then it just becomes a sex joke about a politician instead of a political joke.

CONAN: Let's talk with Jacob, Jacob with us from Oregon City.

JACOB (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I saw John McCain on "Conan O'Brien" about, I don't know, a week or so ago. And he really poked fun at himself, and it really - I've been more of an Obama supporter for the entire election. And it really - you know, I hadn't really seen that from Obama, and it really - it opened my mind a little towards, you know, McCain. It was really refreshing to see him, you know, poke fun at himself and be able to take a few hits.

CONAN: Adam McKay, John McCain is very good at that sort of give and take.

Mr. MCKAY: Yeah. When I was on "Saturday Night Live," we had Bob Dole come on, and he was hilarious. He was a really funny, self-deprecating guy - would have been a terrible president. And Giuliani also came on and was really, really funny. And people that know George Bush from before he was president I've heard say that he's, like, actually a pretty funny guy and kind of fun to hang out with. I don't know if that really - I would say it's like picking a doctor when you're picking a president. It's like I kind of want the most boring guy whose whole life is this job. I don't want the guy who's too funny around the bar and too self-deprecating. It's like you have...

CONAN: I've got two words for you. Jimmy Carter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCKAY: Exactly. Exactly. Jimmy Carter, I would not want to have a beer with Jimmy Carter yet, you know, a very, very good man.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Well, I thought it was interesting to the people who wanted to have a drink with George Bush, and he is a self-professed alcoholic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WINSTEAD: So, the guy they pick is the drunk. Like, it's like, you guys you can't even get that right.

Mr. MCKAY: I want a candidate I want to do crystal meth with. That's what I'm looking for.

Ms. WINSTEAD: You know what? That's what I keep saying. And they don't ever poll those people. So, we don't know how they're trending the methocrats (ph).

Mr. MCKAY: It's a big part of the electorate...

CONAN: E-mail from JL in Iowa City. I'm totally uninterested and unimpressed with candidates' humor when scripted. That can't possibly make someone look human. I do look for honest, spontaneous, often just off-the-cuff humor from a candidate. And again, you go back to history, not just John McCain, but a little earlier, John Kennedy and those press conferences. Well, Lizz Winstead, I don't think you are old enough.

Ms. WINSTEAD: No. Almost.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WINSTEAD: Thank you.

CONAN: I don't know about you, Adam. Were you old enough to remember those John Kennedy news conference? I suspect not.

Mr. MCKAY: I unfortunately was not. No. My - the first funny president I got to see was, quote "funny," was Ronald Reagan, like, you know, well, I'd rather be in Philadelphia, and that's when I started realizing that, you know, a wisecracking president does not a good president make. So, yeah, I'm always suspicious when they're too flip and quick.

Ms. WINSTEAD: I have to say, though, you look at Ann Richards and man, she was hilarious, and it felt real.

Mr. MCKAY: She was really good.

Ms. WINSTEAD: And she would kick you right in the you-know-where, as if she...

Mr. MCKAY: She was really funny.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Awesome.

Mr. MCKAY: Yes. She was real funny. Yes.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Yes.

CONAN: Yes. Lizz Winstead, thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. WINSTEAD: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Lizz Winstead, a comedian, the co-creator of "The Daily Show," now the host of "Thinking & Drinking with Lizz Winstead," joined us from Studio 3A here in Washington. Adam McKay, thank you for your time.

Mr. MCKAY: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Adam McKay, cofounder of funnyordie.com, the writer and director of "Step Brothers," with us from KTLA television in Los Angeles. Coming up, the FBI's case against Bruce Ivins. This is NPR News.

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