Obama Jokes Still Off Limits To America's Comedians

May 4th, 2009 11:07 AM

Did you hear the one about Barack Obama?

You didn't?

Well, that's because jokes about him are still forbidden to America's comedians.

As the Los Angeles Times' Greg Braxton wrote Monday, this breaks a long-standing tradition of comics jabbing at the White House resident as often as possible (h/t Big Hollywood):

As late-night talk show hosts and other television comics who trade in political humor know, cracking wise about the new president, who marked his 100th day in office last week, is apparently not very funny for most of the people, most of the time. Not surprisingly, to guard against a frosty or uncertain reception, TV's leading political humorists have largely backed away from their ritual comic hazing of the president, a colorful tradition in the medium, especially in its late-night time slots, since at least the Nixon administration.

I'm sure this tradition goes back further than Nixon, as George M. Cohan's fabulous musical comedy "I'd Rather Be Right" took numerous shots at then President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But I digress:

"If you're a comedian and you die and go to heaven, Bill Clinton is your president," said Robert J. Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "If you're a comedian and you die and go to hell, Barack Obama is your president." [...]
But it's Obama's African American heritage more than any other single factor that has perhaps frozen comics' pens and keyboards. Political humorists, most of whom are white, have never dealt with a black president and aren't sure how their material will be received. Is an Obama joke truly aimed at the office and its policies, or is it merely a smokescreen for racial prejudice?
"You don't want to appear racist," said Buddy Winston, a former writer for the "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." "You can't do the stereotypical thing. Someone who's a Texan or an elite is much easier to attack."
Assuming this is the case, and fear of appearing racist is the problem for white comedians, shouldn't black comics -- who have made a living in the past couple of decades mocking black stereotypes -- be exempt? Apparently not:
Black comedians encounter similar difficulties in crafting humor at the new president's expense, said David Alan Grier, star of Comedy Central's short-lived "Chocolate News." "Some people in the black community see any sort of criticism of Obama as a betrayal," said Grier. "But my thing is, it's not a betrayal. It's just jokes. That's what comedy is."

Of course, not surprisingly, some comedians have avoided Obama jokes by -- wait for it -- continuing to bash Bush:

Meanwhile David Letterman, who regularly bashed Bush, has repeatedly praised the new president ("You gotta like this guy . . . by God, this guy is out there, doing stuff. He's always got stuff going on").

In fact, the CBS late-night host has used Obama to set up jabs at Bush. In one monologue, he noted Obama's recent trip to South America, where his lack of knowledge of Spanish prevented him from reading a book presented to him by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: "It would be like handing George Bush any book."

Nice job, Dave!

Also of no surprise, "Writers and producers for 'Late Show With David Letterman,' 'The Tonight Show,' 'The Daily Show With Jon Stewart' and 'The Colbert Report' declined comment for this story." Here's why:

Contributing to Obama's kid-glove treatment, too, are the political leanings of many comedy writers. Although it didn't ultimately help Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter, Winston, who wrote for Leno for six years, argues there's little doubt many joke writers are Democrats.

"You have to remember that most comedy writers on these shows are more liberal than conservative," Winston said. "It was much easier to write comedy when the enemy was the target."

It only took readers seventeen paragraphs to finally uncover what's really got the tongues of America's comedians: they're just as infatuated with Obama as Chris Matthews is.

Color me unsurprised.