Letterman Bids Goodbye to Running Joke

For David Letterman, it rivaled his long-running Top 10 List as a signature feature: Great Moments in Presidential Speeches.

But the time for “misunderestimating” President Bush has come to an end – and it’s Barack Obama’s turn to face the full brunt of the joke writers and joke tellers.

Bush didn’t help himself by serving up enough malapropisms and awkward moments to fuel 388 segments of Great Moments in Presidential Speeches since March 2006. Letterman’s planning a final installment Friday night, which will include a retrospective of Bush’s greatest – or rather, worst – hits.

Letterman mined plenty of laughs by juxtaposing classic bits of presidential rhetoric – “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – with such Bush gems as, “The left hand now knows what the right hand is doing.”

"It was the gift that kept on giving," Eric Stangel, co-head writer for “Late Show with David Letterman,” told The Associated Press.

Stangel's life may not be as easy under Obama, who seems to have dodged major barbs – to the point where some have joked there’s not much about him to make fun of, which isn’t much of a punchline.

He largely avoided a skewering during the primary race and general election campaign, thanks to a seemingly endless line of rivals who were sitting ducks for comedians. He may still get some blocking from his administration, thanks to folks like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, who have been the butt of more than their share of jokes.

When it comes to new material, “My money’s on Biden,” "Late Show" writer Tom Ruprecht told AP.

Sure, Fred Armisen of “Saturday Night Live” is getting the mannerisms down, but the comedy world has yet to define what’s funny about Obama.

Maybe that’s a sign that even after all his time in the spotlight, the country doesn’t know its next president as well as it thinks. Or maybe he’s just too smart and has too good a sense of humor to make himself an easy target.

But once in office, no president escapes: Missteps, unforeseen events and the human foibles that are revealed with familiarity and intense scrutiny will no doubt provide comic fodder. When and in what form isn’t clear – but it won’t be Great Moments in Presidential Speeches.

So watch Letterman’s final bash at Bush, and have a few bittersweet laughs. SNL will be sure to get in a few last licks, too, and strike a some opening blows upon the upcoming Obama presidency.

The clearest sign of where the political comedy zeitgeist might be headed could come from “The Daily Show with John Stewart,” which is planning a live Inauguration Day broadcast.

The new president might enjoy a honeymoon with the comedians as well as with Congress. But like Obama and the rest of us, the comedy writers are going to have to work a lot harder in the next four years.

If the comics do their job, Obama, like all presidents, will probably start turning off his TV at 11:30 p.m. – or 10 p.m., once Jay Leno hits prime time.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.

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