Why You Can't Tell Jokes About Obama

As NewsBusters reported, John McCain was Conan O'Brien's guest on Friday's "Late Night," and the comedian asked the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for some joke ideas beyond just his age.

According to the Weekly Standard's Christopher Caldwell, comedians are having a far more difficult time finding humorous material about Barack Obama.

Writing for the Financial Times Friday, Caldwell tried to explain why (emphasis added):

As Barack Obama prepared to leave for Europe this week, Americans fretted over why they can't seem to make jokes about him. One explanation is that he's just too wonderful - "not buffoonish in any way", as one tongue-tied comedian put it in a press account. But surely that can be fixed...Another explanation is that Mr Obama is lucky to be black at a time when white people are skittish about cracking racial jokes. True enough, but Mr Obama is more than just a black person. [...]

The overthrow of “elite” media makes humour harder to practise, because humour is always a collusion of some people against others – “an understanding, almost a complicity, with other laughers”, as Henri Bergson wrote in 1899. Through the fear it inspires, laughter represses eccentricities. It breaks up pockets of resistance to the social consensus. Something is comic when it is rigid, inflexible, mechanical, at odds with the social graces. “And laughter,” Bergson wrote, “is its punishment.”

Comedy resembles politics more than we think – it provides people with identities by providing them with enemies. And it is scurrilous, defamatory politics that comedy resembles most. As politics grows more partisan, the line between humour and sloganeering blurs. During the primaries, the comedy show Saturday Night Live did an oppressively unfunny skit that showed debate moderators favouring Mr Obama. It became well-known when Mrs Clinton crowed about it in a debate. In other words, it failed as a joke but succeeded as propaganda and few Americans could tell the difference. Mrs Clinton then tried to accuse Mr Obama of borrowing oratory from the Massachusetts governor, Deval Patrick, saying what he offered was “not change you can believe in, it’s change you can xerox”. Drum roll! Mrs Clinton delivered the line during a debate as if she were some Borscht Belt stand-up comic and she was booed like one, too. The comedian Jon Stewart recently spoke about “resistance” from audiences when people make Obama jokes.

In a partisan climate, any joke that rises above mere jeering will miss its mark. For half the country, the target is too decent to ridicule; for the other half, he is beneath contempt. On the eve of the primaries, 39 per cent of young Americans told the Pew Research Center they got most of their news through late-night comedy shows. So comedy has never been more important to American politics. Perhaps as a consequence, it has never been less funny.

Frankly, I think Stewart's point about resistance from audiences when people make jokes about Obama is what should be examined, for politicians have always been the source for great comedy. If Americans are somehow uncomfortable poking fun at anyone, a reason should be uncovered.

Is it just because he's black, and everyone's afraid of appearing racist? Sure, that's got to be a part of it.

Yet, in a feminized society, male comedians who have been for decades concerned with appearing sexist if they poke fun at women did go after Hillary's foibles during the primaries.

Why the double standard? Well, maybe it's because media members made it acceptable to parody Hillary's cackle, Hillary's cleavage, Hillary's pantsuits, and Hillary's flip-flops.

By contrast, Obama-loving press members have for months been dictating what can and can't be said about the junior senator from Illinois. They even took his flip-flops away by characterizing them as good political decisions.

In the end, as comedy typically exploits one's shortcomings, and media have made it verboten to discuss any of Obama's, maybe this is why it's been so difficult for comedians to poke fun at the Messiah.

Campaigns & Elections 2008 Presidential Financial Times Weekly Standard Christopher Caldwell
Noel Sheppard's picture