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Peanut gallery livens up an overly scripted campaign

Candidates may suffer from fear of frivolity, but Twittering sidekicks don't.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

OTTAWA -- There's the formal press gallery covering the current federal election -- and then there's the peanut gallery.

With the party leaders following tightly-scripted campaigns where even the jokes are written ahead of time, others are paving the campaign trail with genuine wisecracks.

Leading the way are Scott Feschuk and Jim Armour.

They may characterize each other online as "boogerbrain'' and "stupidhead,'' but both men have a long history in political communications.

Feschuk is a former Liberal party speechwriter and Armour was a director of communications for the Conservatives.

This election, they're both sitting on the sidelines of the campaign but playing a communications role nonetheless: party jesters via the online site Twitter.

"Bob Rae's going to be on TV?'' Armour tweeted Sunday in response to Michael Ignatieff's post about appearing on television to promote a Liberal alternative to Stephen Harper.

With everything they say or do put under a microscope, candidates have become scared of trying to be funny, Armour pointed out.

"It's easier for guys like me and Scott Feschuk to be funny because our jobs don't necessarily depend on the outcome of the election,'' he said.

Their back-and-forth dates back to the days when both were involved directly in campaigns, but social media has taken it to a new level, Armour said.

Feschuk agrees that social media has presented a new stage for political comedy.

"I've never done stand-up comedy, but Twitter strikes me as the electronic version -- it gives you a forum to be funny, and it lets you know instantly whether you succeeded or not,'' he wrote in an e-mail.

"People are never shy about telling you how they felt about you likening Stephen Harper to a Transformer.''

With the political leaders continuously attacking each other on air and at rallies, injecting a little humour helps, suggested journalism professor Joe Cutbirth.

"It's a break from attack ads -- they get old very fast,'' said Cutbirth, who teaches at the University of B.C.

"When people engage in lighter conversation, when they find ways to touch each other without destroying each other, without making politics a blood sport, it is a very smart thing for people to do.''

Programs like Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show'' and Stephen Colbert's "The Colbert Report'' have had the effect of taming the increasingly agitated political circus in the U.S., he said.

"In America, the reason that Stewart and Colbert are successful is because people perceive a widespread failure in traditional institutions of journalism and politics. People are turning to these guys for news and public information,'' he said.

"I don't see that going on in Canada.''

Longtime Canadian funnyman Rick Mercer was skewering politicians long before Stewart ever was, Cutbirth pointed out.

Mercer recently joined the Tory campaign for a few days.

"I wouldn't say there is anything particularly funny about the campaign, but it's fun to watch a campaign unfold up close,'' he said.

Mercer said he knows Canadians have a sense of humour about the campaigns.

"Canadians are very self-deprecating and it's a very admirable trait -- and it's one Canadians have all across the country,'' he said.

While Mercer joked he pretends to be a journalist, his role in potentially shaping the election is not to be underestimated.

Last year, Stewart and Colbert hosted a political rally in Washington, D.C. and over 200,000 people showed up.

"Often, when the people we follow as satirists, who function as the court jester representing our concerns of speaking truth to power, when they drop their funny business and become sincere, they can have a huge impact,'' said Megan Boler, a professor at the University of Toronto who researches political satire.

On his final show of the season, which came in the early days of the campaign, Mercer devoted his rant to the need for young people to vote.

Since then, "vote mobs'' of students have been popping up across the country in response.

"When he put out this call, he wasn't being satirical, he was being sincere,'' Boler said.

"There's a huge amount of sincerity in the response.''

Humour can also help people engage with politics in a different way.

On vintagevoter.ca, Winnipeg resident David Leibl is putting up old pictures of party leaders, including Gilles Duceppe with a full puffy head of hair and a very young Jack Layton sans his trademark moustache.

The site has already had over one million page views.

"I don't for a moment think that funny pictures of politicians is the saviour to the democratic deficit in Canada, far from it,'' said Leibl, a former NDP staffer.

"But I think that when you look at the voting numbers we need to be doing all we can to try and reverse this trend.''

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