My fellow Americans, as our country was engulfed in confusion over the outcome of the presidential election, to whom did we turn for some much-needed comic relief? Dave, Jay, and Bill? Nope. Try Dan, Tom, and Peter.
When it came to big yuks, no late-night jokester could beat the comedy of errors staged by the august network news divisions on election night. No matter where you flipped, hilarity ensued. First, Al Gore was declared the winner in Florida (get out!), then George W. Bush (stop it!), then nobody (yer killin’ us!). ”Oh, waiter, one order of crow,” deadpanned CNN’s Jeff Greenfield after the experts retracted another prediction.
”The thrill for me was staying up until 4:30 a.m. and watching befuddlement unfold,” says Jon Stewart, mock anchorman of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. ”My favorite moment was watching (NBC’s) Tim Russert and Tom Brokaw just staring at each other like ‘F— me!’ and then throwing it to (historian) Doris Kearns Goodwin.” At 3 a.m., Brokaw was caught snacking on camera. ”I’m having a little cracker here to keep going, it turns out,” he intoned. Two hours later, Peter Jennings broke the story that ABC was ablaze as one of the studio’s lights had ignited, and a coworker quickly extinguished it.
Then there was the ongoing spectacle of CBS’ Dan Rather, who rattled off an endless monologue of pseudo-folksy mal mots (he called the race ”hot enough to peel house paint!”). ”He’s like a man in the park,” says NBC’s Late Night host Conan O’Brien. ”Someone should get him a coat and some soup.” Adds Stewart, ”I honestly think he was reading off album covers of country-western records: ‘Put me in a pickup and drive me to the dance, it looks like it’s Bush!”’
But in the weeks of tumult that followed, the natural balance of order was restored, and it was the late-night comics who put the story in proper perspective. ”Both candidates are in seclusion,” David Letterman reported on CBS’ Late Show in the immediate aftermath. ”So, you see, some good has come of this.” With a fistful of fresh ingredients — Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris’ liberal use of makeup, the phrase hanging chad — the absurdist smorgasbord of our electoral crisis helped soften the blow of losing the monologists’ favorite target: ”It’s going to be hard to top Clinton,” says O’Brien. ”He was the gift that kept on giving.”