ALBANY – This town has become accustomed to being the butt of late-night television jokes during decades of sexual, criminal and ethical scandals.
Yet, leave it to Albany to take something that is the result of the bacterial fermentation of milk and turn it into a comedy routine.
Yogurt this week gave Jon Stewart and David Letterman easy punchlines to work over Albany legislators who debated the merits of a bill that would designate the dairy product as the official New York state snack.
Senators took 40 minutes of floor debate to discuss the measure sponsored by Clarence Republican Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer. Democratic colleagues grilled him with a series of serious questions, such as: Why not make raisins or nuts or cheesecake the official snack?
Would yogurt produced outside of New York qualify as an official state snack?
Was it appropriate to designate yogurt as an official snack when there are many lactose-intolerant residents in the state?
At one point Ranzenhofer was called upon to define snack.
“You have breakfast, lunch, dinner, and then you have a snack,” he responded on the floor.
Comedy writers needed little imagination to work with this one. Stewart devoted two separate segments as he played video from the floor debate interspersed with the sarcasm and mock astonishment that made his career.
“Oh my God, this guy is Batman,” Stewart said, when Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat, suggested making the yogurt-dipped pretzel the state snack.
“What say you, Senator Hazzleoff?" Stewart then asked, in one of the variety of ways he mispronounced Ranzenhofer’s name during the segment.
“Yogurt would be the state snack. The pretzel would not," Ranzenhofer responded.
More than 10,000 bills are introduced during most state legislative sessions, and many similar ideas are offered, including efforts to designate an official state mineral – the Herkimer “diamond” – and official state amphibian - the tree frog. What made the yogurt affair sexier was the 40 minutes senators spent grilling Ranzenhofer – longer than the Senate spent considering the NY SAFE Act gun control law in 2013 and just just 15 minutes shorter than the 2011 debate on the gay marriage bill.
On his show, Letterman kept his satire fairly short, playing clips from the floor debate after an introduction of the bit.
“Here’s a new segment, ladies and gentlemen,” introducing the yogurt bill debate under the graphic: “New York State: Your Tax Dollars at Work.”
Stewart’s main segment -- http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/l4jw0z/yogurt-gabba-gabba -- was far more searing.
Sen. Liz Krueger asked whether the yogurt would have to be made in New York to qualify as official. “Dear God, answer her," Stewart implored between the video scenes.
“I don’t believe fourth-graders wanted to discriminate between different types of yogurt," Ranzenhofer said of the class at Byron-Bergen Elementary School in Genesee County that came up with the idea.
Krueger then raised a concern of giving the Empire State’s official shout-out to a product that affects those who are lactose intolerant.
Ranzenhofer had an answer: soy-based yogurt.
“This guy’s like the Ken Jennings of yogurt," Steward said, comparing Ranzenhofer to the all-time winning streak holder on “Jeopardy.”
Rivera pressed Ranzenhofer. Did he consider the potato chip, or specifically Greek yogurt, or hot dogs?
No, no and no, Ranzenhofer responded.
“Absolutely not," Ranzenhofer said, explaining that’s a dessert.
The debate eventually got to Ranzenhofer, who couldn’t make it through his point without laughing when he talked of the official state muffin (apple).
Still, when he started the floor debate, Ranzenhofer was serious, calling his plan “an example of democracy" because the proposal came from a fourth-grade class studying how governments work.
His bill was intended to “tell the rest of America" that yogurt – New York is the top producer in the nation – is a healthy snack.
Casey Kosiorek, superintendent of the Byron-Bergen Central School District where the idea originated, wasn’t upset, but he wasn’t laughing either.
He praised his school’s fourth-grade students, many from farm families, for coming up with an idea that quickly attracted the attention of the state legislature. They began last November with a letter-writing campaign and an eventual visit by Ranzenhofer. Neither Stewart nor Letterman mentioned the school by name.
Kosiorek said he had not yet seen the Letterman skit, but said Stewart’s show is not “age appropriate" for the fourth-graders.
“To be quite honest, sarcasm plays no place in education," he said.
Kosiorek said he is proud of the students and their idea, and that the community is not offended that the idea of yogurt as an official state snack helped make for jokes on the national shows.
The bill passed in the Senate, 52-8, and now is in the Assembly. It’s not certain the legislation will be brought to the floor.