For U.S. presidential candidates, there's no time like the present to make those cringe-inducing mistakes, insensitive jokes or displays of outright hypocrisy. That's because the writers strike has forced the late-night TV comics to show reruns rather than fresh material.
That is, no time like until early January, when late-night comics return to the air again with new programs.
For seven weeks, the Writers Guild of America has been on strike, which means that for seven weeks, candidates have been free of the often scorching satire heaped on them by the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel.
Now, all except Letterman have announced they will return early next month, with or without their writing staffs. (Letterman's company has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to work out a separate deal with the striking writers to return Jan. 2, coincidentally the night before the Iowa caucuses, when the first votes are cast in the presidential nomination process.)
Good news for viewers _ but bad news perhaps for those candidates whose gaffes or sticky revelations have been flying safely under the late-night radar for nearly two months.
"This has been a good time for them to screw up," says Andy Borowitz, comedian and author of the Borowitz Report, a satirical Web site. He wonders what the comics might have done when, say, Republican Mike Huckabee asked in a recent interview whether the Mormons believed that Jesus and the devil were brothers. (Huckabee later apologized to rival Mitt Romney, a Mormon.)
He also wonders how Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign might have been skewered when one of its officials made an ill-advised reference to youthful drug use by rival Democrat Sen. Barack Obama. (The official resigned.)
And it is also fun to imagine what Letterman might have done when TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey blazed onto the political scene, giving Obama a huge boost by joining him on the campaign trail. "Would we have been in for a reprise of the Oprah-Uma routine?" Borowitz asks, referring to a particularly infamous joke from Letterman's stint as host of the Academy Awards ceremony. "Maybe the second time would have been a charm."
Which presidential hopefuls have benefited most from the writer's strike? Probably the so-called top-tier candidates, who have less need for the free publicity and have escaped scrutiny in uncomfortable moments over the last two months.
For example, Rudy Giuliani, who has faced uncomfortable revelations recently about New York police security costs for his extramarital trysts with his now-wife, Judith Nathan, may have suffered much less fallout than he would have without the strike.
"That's weeks worth of hard-hitting ridicule right there," says Daniel Kurtzman, editor of the political humor page on About.com. "He escaped a wave of mockery that might have proved even more damaging to his campaign."
You might think it is impossible to quantify the impact of the writer's strike on the campaign. Actually, the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs tracks late-night jokes about the candidates, and reports that Clinton stands to benefit most from the strike. Why? Because she has been joked about almost as often as all the other Democratic candidates combined.
The group found that from Jan. 1 through Oct. 10, Leno, Letterman, O'Brien, Stewart and Colbert joked about Clinton 186 times, versus 197 times for all the other Democrats together. They "focused heavily on her physical appearance, including her clothes (29 jokes), her alleged lack of emotional warmth (43 jokes), and her marital problems (21 jokes)," the group said in a report. (It also found that John Edwards attracted frequent jokes about his appearance _ yup, mostly his hair.)
The comedians found the Democrats (383 jokes) just a little funnier than the Republicans (312 jokes), the group said. Only Clinton and Giuliani were among the top-10 most joked-about figures in the country.
The CMPA's president, Robert Lichter, says late-night shows are a mixed bag for the candidates. On the one hand, they can make them look bad and reduce support. On the other, especially for dark horses, "simply by focusing on them, the shows can increase their support _ as in, all comedy is good as long as they spell your name right."
Kurtzman, the political humorist, agrees. "Of course there are the stinging jokes that can hurt. But the more innocent jokes can help a candidate by putting them on the pop culture map. If you're a regular target, there's the sense that you've arrived."
And even for the front-runners, the talk shows can be a boon because they can always do a guest spot to display a different side of themselves _ for instance, for Clinton to show she has a playful, softer side. "Hillary did well with her top-10 list on Letterman," Kurtzman notes.
And some candidates thrive in the late-night setting. Sen. John McCain has clearly enjoyed his visits to Jon Stewart, as has Obama, who got a big laugh two years ago when, asked about the hype surrounding him, he told the host: "The only person more over-hyped than me is you!"
Although nothing can match the reach of the late-night shows, Kurtzman and others note the strike has given a boost to Web-based political satire. On his own site, he's taken to soliciting reader jokes. Most of the results, he says, "prove that comedy writing is not an easy thing to do!"
As for Borowitz, he says he's "enjoying the open field."
"The writers should take their time coming back," he quips. "Actually, November '08 would be a pretty good time."