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Arizona politics: the comedy gift that kept on giving in 2010

Hundreds of years ago, William Shakespeare turned comic relief into a literary device. In 2010, Jon Stewart effectively turned that device against Arizona.

When the Arizona Legislature passed SB1070, the immigration law that sparked a national outcry, Stewart and his team of comedians at Comedy Central’s “Daily Show” likened the motivation for the law to the state’s weather, calling it “a dry hate.”

When it came to election coverage, Stewart referred to Sarah Palin and U.S. Sen. John McCain as “Lady and the Gramps.”

In all, the “Daily Show” aired 13 separate segments about Arizona in 2010, sometimes even swindling state lawmakers to appear as guests on the show – or, perhaps more accurately, to turn them into punch lines.

It’s likely that no other state provided more fodder to Stewart during the past year than Arizona.

“Without a doubt,” said Rep. Chad Campbell, who will lead the House Democratic caucus next year. “It’s a correct observation to say that we became the butt of the joke this year.”

Stewart began laying into Arizona in March when he summarized Arizona politics by modifying a quote by 20th-century Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

On air, Stewart quoted Brandeis as saying “states are the laboratories of democracy, the place where programs can be developed and tested to help solve national problems.” Then he showed a video-montage highlighting Arizona’s “birther bill,” the relaxing of concealed weapons laws and the signing of SB1070, noting that all three had been passed within the same week.

“One week,” Stewart reiterated. “It turns out Arizona is the meth-lab of democracy.”

Arizona’s immigration law served as a repeated punching bag for the Daily Show, with SB1070 becoming an easy target when it passed in the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Jan Brewer.

A clip of former U.S. Rep. Tom Trancredo of Colorado criticizing SB1070 and underscoring its potential to lead to racial profiling was used to poke fun at the new immigration law’s divisive nature, even among well-established immigration hawks.

“Tom Tancredo – the man Mexican parents tell their kids about to get them to eat their vegetables – he thinks you’ve gone too far,” Stewart exclaimed on air to Arizona lawmakers. “It’d be like Ted Nugent pleading with you to just put down the guns and talk this thing out.”

In May, the “Daily Show” sent one of its reporters, Jason Jones, to Arizona to look for illegal immigrants at a raucous Cinco de Mayo party at a Mexican-themed bar. Jones applied his own version of reasonable suspicion to several hard-partying white people regarding their affinity for sombreros, tequila and mariachi music.

“Suspicious behavior was everywhere,” Jones concluded, before pressing a college-aged girl at a bar about her residency status.

After asking another set of sombrero-wearing women about “being illegal immigrants,” one of them flew into an expletive-laden tirade and slapped Jones across the face.

Wyatt Cenec, the show’s “senior immigration correspondent,” parsed the finer points of SB1070′s reasonable suspicion provisions, joking that police will be looking for people acting suspiciously, “like gardening or burping white peoples’ babies.”

State lawmakers even made appearances on the show, in spite of the fact that nearly every guest on the show becomes the target of ridicule.

In July, as the implementation of SB1070 inched closer, Olivia Munn, another of the show’s reporters, came to Arizona to talk with Republican Rep. Carl Seel about legislation that outlawed the use of photo enforcement cameras on Valley freeways, equating his claim that they are an unconstitutional invasion of privacy to similar criticisms of SB1070.

At one point, Seel told Munn, “We kind of have a joke down here at the Capitol” regarding the photo enforcement cameras that catch people speeding. When Munn bit and asked for the punch line, Seel replied, “We’ll take them down and put them on the border.”

Not amused, Munn pretended that she was still waiting for the punchline and coaxed Seel into explaining the joke over and over without success.

“I’ll have to write that one down,” Munn said with a deadpan demeanor.

Seel said he got a laugh out of the entire episode, and that even though he was the butt of the jokes, he didn’t feel it harmed him.

“It’s a comedy channel. They’ve got to try to have fun with it. I don’t believe I embarrassed myself or my colleagues at the Legislature,” Seel said. “I even had 20-year-old guys coming up to me at Walmart telling me I did a great job, so really I reached a whole new segment of my electorate with it.”

2010 was also an election year, which means politicians put themselves in front of cameras even more than usual, giving “Daily Show” writers plenty of material for their political farce.

When Palin came to stump for McCain at a Tea Party event in Tucson in March, Stewart showed a clip of Palin poking fun at McCain’s age and saying that maybe he was at the original 1773 Boston Tea Party.

“It’s a rally, not a roast,” Stewart said, before offering his own comment about the appearance of a pale, stiff McCain next to the always vibrant Palin. “What is this, Weekend at Bernie’s?”

But it wasn’t just McCain; Stewart skillfully skewered several other Republicans, including McCain’s primary election opponent, former U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth.

In August, Stewart’s show featured an image of Hayworth with a broad, forced smile on screen and describing him as, “Flesh-covered, rightwing ventriloquist dummy J.D. Hayworth, seen here en route to his all-puppet production of ‘Guys and Dolls.’”

And Stewart didn’t pull punches when he offered this explanation for McCain’s victory over Hayworth: “McCain trounced Hayworth by standing on principle, mainly the principle that he would like to die in his Senate seat.”

Stewart also used Arizona’s 2010 gubernatorial candidates to make broad observations about the dire political straits of Democrats across the country.

“The Democrats’ problem isn’t their ideas, or their desperate strategies,” Stewart said. “It’s that no matter what they do, it doesn’t (expletive) matter. Case in point: Arizona.”

Stewart then played a clip of Brewer’s 13-second freeze-up during a televised gubernatorial debate in early September.

“Governor Brewer, what happened? Did a Mexican drug cartel sneak across the border and kidnap your tongue?” Stewart jested, before offering his own snide explanation. “Oh, wait! I know what happened. Her brain-fart lasted the exact amount of time it takes the guy from ‘Quantum Leap’ to realize that he’s in a new body.”

Stewart put a sharper point on Democrats’ misfortunes by playing a clip of Brewer fleeing from the post-debate questions about her earlier claims of headless bodies in the Arizona desert.

“Why exactly do I bring up a Republican governor’s disastrous debate appearance and comically feckless efforts at ignoring questions about earlier (expletive) crazy statements that she had brought up in the first place, as evidence of the difficulties Democratic candidates are facing? Because here’s crazy Jan Brewer’s opponent,” Stewart said while a photo of Terry Goddard appeared on screen. “And a week after the debate, she still crushing the (expletive) out of him.”

The debate over whether Stewart’s show is a comedy program with a political bent or a left-leaning political opinion show that uses comedy as its prism is far from settled. But one thing is pretty clear: Arizona’s political tension in 2010 provided ample opportunity for comedy, and will probably continue to do so in the future.

Click here to see all of the Daily Show’s segments poking fun at Arizona.

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