The great national strategic political comedy reserve has been depleted.

Thanks to the TV writers' strike, millions of citizens have been deprived of their late-night dose of sarcasm and slashing wit, of irony and smart-aleck quips. No Letterman, no Leno, no Stewart or Colbert.

As a compressed schedule of presidential primaries rapidly approaches, the nation's irony deficiency comes at the worst possible time.

Without late-night comedy, how will we really know what or whom to make fun of? With only a few precious weeks before Iowa and New Hampshire, will political journalists be forced to create their own caricatures of the candidates without any help from Conan or even that Scottish guy?

Look at all the juicy targets that have passed recently without extracurricular commentary. What would "Indecision 2008" have done with Hillary Clinton's comment about being able to stand the heat of the campaign because she's "real comfortable in the kitchen"?

What would Jay Leno make of Mike Huckabee's surge in Iowa (and his endorsements from both Chuck Norris and former pro wrestler Ric "Nature Boy" Flair)? What fun could "SNL" have with the news that arch-social-conservative Pat Robertson has endorsed thrice-married Republican Rudy Giuliani.

The candidates need late-night comedy shows as much as the electorate does. A guest appearance on "The Tonight Show" telegraphs that the candidate gets the joke. Candidates have known this for decades, whether it's Richard Nixon appearing on "Laugh-In" or Bill Clinton scoring cool points by playing the sax on "The Arsenio Hall Show."

Until the strike, Hillary Clinton had appeared twice on Letterman's "Late Show," perhaps to show she's not the ice maiden portrayed in comics' monologues.

There's also nothing like the late-night comedy shows to establish, or perhaps just reinforce, a candidate's persona.

Indeed, almost any major politician of recent vintage can be reduced to his TV comedy caricature. Bill Clinton: philanderer, glutton, liar. George W. Bush: inarticulate, incompetent, a puppet of Vice President Dick Cheney. Al Gore (pre-Nobel Prize): pompous, wooden, wonky.

Then there's Hillary Clinton. The Democratic senator from New York is the candidate who stands to gain most from the hiatus because she's been the butt of the jokes far more often, says Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.

The jokes have tended to play on the same few themes: Hillary as long-suffering wife, Hillary as chilly and robotic.

Viewers don't really remember a joke, he says. But they remember a barrage of jokes that repeat similar punch lines.

"When you're getting clobbered with jokes, it helps the dark horses (in the race). If you take that away, it doesn't give the contenders an advantage. It just leaves the current situation at status quo," Lichter says.

That's not just wrong. That's un-American. Hurry back, Dave and Jon and Jay and ...