Keeping a watch on TV

By Bruce Fretts
Updated January 23, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

A bad-taste test of late-night potshots at Michael Kennedy, Sonny, Woody and Soon-Yi

Is it just me, or are late-night hosts getting meaner every year? I wasn’t alive at the time, but I’m pretty sure Johnny Carson didn’t tell JFK jokes after the assassination. Yet by today’s standards that doesn’t seem like such a radical concept. The Tonight Show’s ultra-mainstream Jay Leno routinely fires off one-liners tasteless enough to make Lenny Bruce wince in his grave. (He recently goofed that Forrest Gump costar Mykelti Williamson, accused of stalking his ex-wife and stabbing her male companion, ”could be charged with impersonating O.J. Simpson.” Ouch!) To be fair, some hosts are meaner than others. The rule of thumb: The smaller your viewership is the nastier you can be. To find out who’s the baddest, Remote Patrol looked at how the hosts handled three potentially offensive topics — Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn’s wedding and Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono’s deaths:

WOODY AND SOON-YI: Long a staple of the late-night comics’ monologues, the Woodman and his quasi-stepchild bride brought on a new round of barbs with their Dec. 23 nuptials. Jay and Dave went for the easy in-law jokes (Jay: ”Do you realize Woody Allen is now his own son-in-law?”; Dave: ”There are few pleasures in life greater than having your ex-girlfriend as your mother-in-law”). Late Night’s Conan O’Brien found a typically clever variation on the age difference between the bride and groom: ”Soon-Yi said, ‘It was a bittersweet holiday. First, Woody married me, then he told me there wasn’t a Santa Claus.”’ But Craig Kilborn of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show pushed the limits of bad taste the furthest, addressing both the race issue (”Will she be mad if we throw rice?”) and the molestation angle (”Soon-Yi may be pregnant with what would be her first baby and, inevitably, Woody’s fourth wife”).

MICHAEL KENNEDY: The death of RFK’s son put an end to all the gags about his tryst with the family babysitter, but his name still popped up on the late-night shows (not in prime-time, however — NBC’s Caroline in the City looped over a line about Amy Pietz’s Annie running into ”a bunch of horny Kennedys” while in Boston). Late Show guest Tom Brokaw chastised the crowd for chuckling when he mentioned that he once hit a tree on skis. Politically Incorrect’s Bill Maher lamely offered, ”I guess we all remember where we were when Michael Kennedy was killed — I was at a New Year’s Eve party.” PI panelist Martin Mull one-upped him, suggesting that the Kennedys should fire their ski-football offensive coordinator for sending Michael ”on a post pattern into a tree.” PI guest Jerry Falwell topped them both, however, declaring, ”My prayers are with all the Kennedys, and the next time they run for office, I’ll vote against them.” That’s the spirit, Rev!

SONNY BONO: Only PI’s Maher and The Daily Show’s Kilborn dared to mock the pop star-turned-populist’s Jan. 5 demise. But Maher made just one limp quip (”Newt Gingrich blasted skiing today, saying it’s a slippery slope”). Kilborn, on the other hand, made no less than eight Bono jokes on Jan. 6, before the body was even, er, cold. He bottomed out with a shot at grieving daughter Chastity’s lesbianism, joking that she ”suffered a minor neck strain after going headfirst into a bush.” Congratulations, Craiggers — you’re the cruelest of ’em all!