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No jokes: Can the republic stand?

How will we decide whom to vote for without Leno, Letterman, Stewart and company?

Every day seems to bring a new twist to the presidential campaign, whether it's Mike Huckabee's Christmas-themed ad or Hillary Clinton's attempts to show a softer side.

And every day, fans of

The Daily Show


The Colbert Report

, and

Saturday Night Live

wonder how those programs would sink their teeth into the political spin and media coverage - if, that is, the shows weren't in reruns.

The worst thing for viewers about the Hollywood writers strike could be the missing voices of TV satire during a presidential election cycle, says Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.

"Late-night comedy has become such an important part of the civic discourse of this nation," says Thompson.

NBC announced this week that Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien are set to return in early January. And ABC said Jimmy Kimmel will be back next month, too.

Even so, the late-night hosts will be coming back minus their writers, so don't expect streams of jokes on the candidates' foibles.

On the other hand, the buzz is that CBS's David Letterman may be able to return next month along with his writing staff, if his production company is able to negotiate an interim deal with the writers' union.

But talk shows aside, it's really the late-night comedy shows that have provided some of the most influential political commentary of recent years.

Imagine the 2000 presidential race without NBC's

Saturday Night Live

skits with Will Ferrell as George W. Bush and Darrell Hammond as Al Gore, and you'll get an idea of comedy's impact.

Consider the attention paid to Comedy Central's

The Colbert Report

when Stephen Colbert launched his brief run for the White House.

"I like

The Daily Show

because it offers political commentary . . . in a satirical fashion," says Khari Wheeler, 32, president of the Michigan Young Democrats and an avid news follower.

He also watches

The Colbert Report


Saturday Night Live

and says "all of those shows offer a fresh perspective and draw young people into the process."

A study released in 2004 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press examined how the public gets its election news. It found that 21 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they regularly learn something from comedy shows like

The Daily Show


Saturday Night Live

, compared with 6 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds.

The monologues and skits of late-night offerings make an impression on viewers, but so do guest appearances by candidates.

"Late-night shows have been part of the mix to introduce candidates," says Michael Dimock, associate director of research for the Pew Research Center.

In politics, many roads lead to comedy. But Thompson doesn't find anything funny about the current void in political humor on TV.

"As citizens of a republic, we've really come to depend on those comedic voices," he says.