Foley Case Changes the Formula For Late-Night Comedy
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WASHINGTON — The cosmic comedy chain has snapped. The Mark Foley scandal means that no more will any joke linking sex and politics automatically invoke the name Bill Clinton.
Disclosures that Mr. Foley, the former Republican representative from Florida, engaged teenage boys in graphic Internet sex chats — even while waiting to vote in the House — and the resulting disarray among party leaders probably will sustain America’s comedians for weeks.
“We will milk this for all it’s worth,” Mark Russell, who is a longtime denizen of Washington whose specialty is getting laughs at the expense of politicians, said. While the scandal is sordid, he said, the subject matter is “easier to understand than foreign policy. This is one of those stories that gets the attention of people who don’t have a clue.”
Mr. Russell couldn’t resist offering an example himself in an interview. Noting that Mr. Foley checked into a rehabilitation center for treatment of alcoholism, he quipped: “I picture Foley saying, ‘Hi, I’m an alcoholic, and I’ve been one for two or three days now.”‘
Since Mr. Foley resigned September 29 over his electronic exchanges with teenagers that he met when they were House pages, late-night comedy shows have had one recurring theme.
“Florida Congressman Mark Foley has resigned,” the host of NBC’s “Tonight Show,” Jay Leno, said. “So his seat is up for grabs, which is what got him in trouble in the first place.”
With a nod to other Capitol Hill scandals, Mr. Leno added, “This is like the worst thing to happen to congressional Republicans since last Thursday.”
“The real battle now is how the GOP leadership handled the allegations,” Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” on the Comedy Central cable network said. “My guess is with some sort of latex glove.”
The longest reigning political punching bag for comics has been President Clinton, whose affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky in 1995 has provided fodder for late-night monologues more than five years after he left office.
Mr. Foley’s travails almost, but not quite, knocked Mr. Clinton off the stage. “At least the Democrats wait until the interns are 18,” CBS “Late Show” host David Letterman said last week.
Mr. Letterman also sprinkled his signature Top Ten lists with Foley references. The no. 1 surprise in Bob Woodward’s book “State of Denial” about Mr. Bush and the Iraq war: “Bush lost focus on Iraq because Congressman Mark Foley wouldn’t stop sending him inappropriate e-mails.”
More than laughs are at stake. That comedians have latched on to the Foley scandal will extend the life of the story, which “can’t be good news” for Republicans as they fight to keep their majorities in Congress, the president of the Washington-based Pew Center for the People and the Press, Andrew Kohut, said.
The combined average nightly viewership for the six most popular late-night shows, including Messrs. Leno, Letterman, and Stewart, is 16.2 million people, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. That’s almost as many as the 23.8 million who watch the evening news on broadcast networks ABC, CBS, and NBC, and nine times as many as read the New York Times and Washington Post.
“Increasing numbers of people say they are getting news about political figures and campaign events on shows like Jon Stewart’s ‘The Daily Show,’ and ‘Saturday Night Live,”‘ Mr. Kohut said “These venues are especially important for younger viewers.”