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Obama as punch line

Guest Blogger

At first President Obama seemed immune to mockery – not so anymore. Now that he has demonstrated his aptitude for folly and failure, he has won his own place in the long history of presidential satire. Peter M. Robinson explores the delicate relationship between White House occupants and political joke meisters in “The Dance of the Comedians: The People, the President, and the Performance of Political Standup Comedy in America,” recently released by University of Massachusetts Press. Here, he puts our latest target of presidential punch lines in the context of the rough-and-tumble tradition.

By Peter M. Robinson

Heard the one about the rat that dashed across the steps at the president’s Rose Garden news conference recently? A microphone picked up its yelling “How do I get off this sinking ship?”

How about the one where Obama plans to get out of the Washington bubble and reassure those affected by unemployment and the Gulf oil spill with a 50-state tour “to make reassuring eye contact with every last American”?

You’ve probably heard these -- by Jay Leno, and The Onion respectively -- or many like them. They are from the latest barrage of punch lines aimed at the president lately. You’ve likely made up a few of your own.

Ah, how far we’ve come. It was only last year that humorist Daniel Kurtzman wondered for the fun of it if Obama’s intelligence, mastery of cool, and the election of the country’s first African American president would burst the comedy bubble that had ballooned under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Comedy screenwriters Michael Colton and John Aboud put their tongues firmly in cheek and prophesied that Obama’s “wisdom and judgment will erase every single social and political discontent that fuels comedy, including marital strife, the inconveniences of air travel, and D.M.V. wait times.”

As it turns out, the more things change -- Barack Obama’s brand of change included -- the more things stay the same. Political humor aimed at the president thrives as it has in one form or another since the birth of the republic.

Obama’s historic election may have interrupted its transition from the Bush years but the Obama administration has ultimately reaffirmed what we Americans have celebrated since the days of George Washington and his false teeth: presidents are funny.

Of course, we had no right to expect this would be any different under Obama. Such jokes have been big business for a long time, since Will Rogers poked fun at Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt in the 20s and 30s and especially since the post Vietnam/Watergate days when Chevy Chase showed up regularly on Saturday Night Live as Gerald Ford trying -- and failing -- to master stairs.

It took the humor industrial complex longer to retool after the election of 2008, but profit has become motive enough for laughing at presidents and the dollars just continue to roll in. Humor has been a surefire form of economic stimulus in good times and bad.

But the real reason we laugh at presidents -- the reason there is a reliable market for Leno’s and The Onion’s zingers -- lies in our construction of the office two and a quarter centuries ago and its development during the past 100 years. We’re starting to laugh loud and long at Obama, but the joke has been around a long time and it serves a vital purpose.

Political humor in all its forms -- parody, one-liners, impersonation, cartoons, satire -- stands as a rich expression of democracy as well as entertainment. By telling the joke or laughing along with it we cast a voice vote of discontent and we bring the president down to size. By getting a laugh from others, we elevate ourselves to an extent, at least as long as the laugh holds out.

We come by this comedic quest for balance naturally. Humor’s the great leveler for reconciling the irony that every four years a nation of equals bestows unequal power on one of its own. We elect an imperfect human being to lead us -- we the imperfect people -- toward the perfect promises of the Constitution, the interpretation of which we cannot agree on.

With the passing years and changes in presidential power to confront the economy, wars, and other issues complex to the point of absurdity, this irony has grown greater. All of us -- the electorate, the candidates, the media -- dance nobly but amusingly between imagining the ideal possibilities of the office and ridiculing its occupant for mediocrity or worse. Add the pie fight called party politics and we have the makings of a classic vaudeville routine. Actually, it’s enough to make one scream, cry, or burst out laughing. There’s a lot of screaming these days, but Americans have – thankfully -- most often chosen to laugh.

This irony is part of the mysterious “of the people, by the people, and for the people” beauty of our democracy. It also is the stuff of cutting satire in the tradition of Ben Franklin and Mark Twain. The punch lines aimed at Obama will become more numerous precisely because the number and magnitude of difficulties faced by this president is exceeded only by the expectations for him, and we’re just starting to assess -- as we have with all presidents -- the disparity between ideal and reality. New president, same irony.

Jon Stewart recently nailed it in his ridicule of Obama in the wake of his first Oval Office address. To the delight of his audience, he skewered the president for failing to reemphasize civil liberties and curb executive power, and he wondered what had happened to the candidate who had promised this and more. He then cut to a clip of citizen Obama taking the oath of office. “Oh,” said Stewart, “I see. You used to have a little [power], now you have a lot.”

By blasting Obama with what Twain called “the assault of laughter,” he took the president down a notch and exercised some comedic power of his own. He also tacitly reminded his audience that for all his intelligence, charisma, and even best intentions, Obama is no miracle worker, and that the presidency bestows power that must be checked and balanced with guffaws.

The question of whether Obama is too cool to kid is closed. The laughter will go on and all he can do is laugh along when possible. It’s one important tool a president possesses for soothing the national psychology and leading in ways that most Americans can relate to personally. FDR grinned at fear itself despite charges he was a socialist during an economic crisis far worse than ours. Ronald Reagan exuded indomitable optimism and cracked jokes within moments of the assassination attempt that critically wounded him. Abraham Lincoln held fast to his humor like a lifeline during the Civil War.

Americans applauded them all for this even as they took them to task. Obama understands this power of humor and has the ability to utilize it. His ability to warm up audiences with jokes that are often self-deprecating, his recent performance at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner where he got better reviews than Leno, and his tactical decisions to use unprecedented appearances on The Tonight Show and David Letterman’s Late Show as postmodern fireside chats all serve to help equate the presidency with the people through the sense of humor that Americans like to see in themselves.

Presidents are funny. So are those who laugh at them. We’re all part of the joke, and that’s not a bad thing.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  June 25, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: presidential comedy; presidential satire; jay leno's obama jokes;  
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You should make that a 58- state tour, remembering Obama didn't know how many states there are in the US during the campaign.

Posted by: ealtizer1 | June 25, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

TO: ealtizer1 who wrote:
"You should make that a 58-state tour, remembering Obama didn't know how many states there are in the US during the campaign."

President Obama knows exactly how many States there are and that joke wasn't funny to begin with, it's stale, and it stinks.

Try to come up with something better and just let this one go.

Posted by: lindalovejones | June 25, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

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