Yes, it's a little weird that John McCain has to grovel to David Letterman. But it's interesting to see how much more comfortable he looked, mugging and bantering beside Letterman's desk, than he did sitting at that Hofstra University debate table on Wednesday night. He talked in plain language about the economy, the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and the ugliness at campaign rallies -- the same topics that came up at the debate, but to Letterman, he addressed them more cogently and calmly. He didn't blink so much. His jokes worked. And he apologized to Joe the Plumber for setting up yesterday's crash course in celebrity.
Yet this wasn't a cakewalk, not even remotely. Letterman wasn't at all afraid to ask tough questions; he was so relentless on the subjects of Sarah Palin and William Ayers that he made Bob Schieffer look like a kindergarten teacher. If anything, this proved the limitations of the buttoned-down official debate format, which leaves the moderators hamstrung by rules, and the candidates so coached and constrained that they wind up looking like caricatures of themselves. (More on that below.) Late night TV gives these candidates a chance to look human, but in some ways, it also gives them a chance to look more presidential. And it gives hosts a chance to look like journalists.
As for caricatures, "Weekend Update Thursday" finally got an Obama-McCain debate right, by straying from straight, point-by-point satire and veering into the surreal. I laughed - very hard - at the idea of Joe the Plumber as McCain's very small imaginary friend. I loved the moment when Obama apologized to invisible Joe for questioning his existence. I'm happy that, on the politics front, "SNL" has found its mojo this season. And here's a prediction, for what it's worth: if, as McCain said, Sarah Palin does appear on the show this weekend, she'll do very well.