Depending on whether you're the glass-half-full or glass-half-empty type, the ongoing Hollywood writers strike has either been the best or worst thing to happen to the presidential primary candidates. On one hand, Hillary Clinton might be happy Amy Poehler's walking a picket line. On the other hand, one of our most relied-upon sources of the kind of intangible information we use to make decisions about people is suddenly gone. When even a liberal blowhard like Michael Moore can't pick someone to dislike less than anyone else, the cultural mindset is adrift. That could be a good thing — we all miss our favorite prime-time dramas, but absence of political satire and snark on TV has been almost ... refreshing.
It's probably fitting that this strike comes just at the moment when most people are finally realizing that for the first time in more than 50 years, American popular culture isn't based around television. I'm not so sure it's a "cultural buzzkill," though it's certainly an ironic twist that just when everyone got over feeling bad about admitting they get their news from Comedy Central, the strike happened, leaving people to form their views in Iowa and New Hampshire the old-fashioned way: through an avalanche of direct-mail and hundreds of hours of campaign ads on local TV.
There's a lot of general ridiculousness surrounding an election, but the popularity and profitability of political humor on television has given it far more importance than it deserves — hence the rush to get Jay and Dave back on the air Wednesday night, and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert back next week, even if it means using scab writers. It's as if political humor itself is somehow central to the democratic process.
Stewart and Colbert, both members of the striking union, will return ambivalent, without their writers and possibly facing backlash from pro-union fans. They didn't make it back to the air in time for Iowa, barely in time for New Hampshire's primary. But be assured, the machines will be humming along again nicely by Tsunami Tuesday.
Nobody likes to admit that the dearth of late-night monologues, "Daily Show" segments and dead-on "Saturday Night Live" impressions is making it harder for people to make up their minds, but it has, at least temporarily, neutralized much of pop culture's impact on our political decision-making. Which again, may be a good or bad thing, depending: That Mike Huckabee press conference, where he so bravely stood up against negative attack ads by showing one to a roomful of reporters, had the unmistakable ring of truthiness. And Rudy Giuliani ought to be thanking his lucky stars there wasn't an episde of "SNL" scheduled around the time he put on that dorky red vest.
Yet, despite the lack of actual programming and viewers spread like so thinly across the digital dial, political campaigns will still blow huge wads of money on "absurdly over-saturated media plans." That means more commercials you don't want to see, but luckily they'll be running during crappy reality shows you don't watch, so you probably won't even see them. Unless maybe Huckabee holds another screening.
What bothers me is wondering whether we profess to miss these shows so much because they're truly important or because we've come to rely so heavily on them for our intellectual work. We need someone "smart" to tell us how to feel about things, which issues to be sarcastic about and which to embrace, which candidates are cool or hip or down with the current slang. Are Huckabee's one-finger bass chops any more important than John Edwards' non-baby non-scandal, and if not, then are we really missing out on anything by not goofing on them?
A good political joke or satire doesn't just crack wise, but communicates the essence of the issue being mocked. But it is certainly not a central ingredient to the political process itself. It's just comedy, people.