Pardon my French—and Latin—but I’ve noticed that David Letterman and his writers have introduced a new variation on the kind of joke traditionally told by mainstream, “equal opportunity offender” late-night comics. These are jokes that focus on the personalities of candidates—or really, on one or two caricatured traits—and have, at best, only tangential relevance to the ideologies and policies the candidates represent. The Latin phrase ad hominem (literally, “at the man”), as some of you may have learned in Freshman Comp, is a logical fallacy in which one attempts to win an argument by attacking the person making it. For late-night comedians, the ad hominem strategy allows them to make fun of politicians without really talking about politics. No one can accuse you of “bias” (accepted idiot-speak for “caring enough about an issue to have an opinion”) if instead of dealing with what a politician says about, say, the mortgage crisis, you just make fun of his haircut.
Thus, the hotly-contested and highly consequential 2000 presidential race was, as far as Dave, Jay, Conan, and SNL were concerned, merely a choice between a dumb guy who couldn’t pronounce big words, and a guy who bragged about inventing everything from the Internet to the phrase “Don’t go there, Girlfriend” in a robotic monotone. In 2004 it was the dope vs. the flip-flopper with the rich wife, and in 1996, the womanizing Bubba vs. the old guy who referred to himself in the third person. There were some funny lines along the way, to be sure, but no real satire, because none of this was really political—it was just personal.
And that is the case with this new subset of Letterman jokes, too. But they are, at least, a different—and, if only because of their novelty—more interesting form of ad hominem jokes. Yet they proceed from the unfairest basis of all: physical appearance:
I kind of like that Sarah Palin. You know, she reminds me, she looks like the flight attendant who won’t give you a second can of Pepsi…. She looks like the weekend anchor on Channel 9. She looks like the hygienist who makes you feel guilty about not flossing. She looks like the relieved mom in a Tide commercial.