The Joke's on Us?

Stop me if you've heard this one: Barack Obama and Joe Biden walk into a bar ... have a drink, shake some hands, and leave.

Not laughing? Well, our current political leadership just isn't all that funny. It's not just the Democrats -- have you heard any good Mitch McConnell jokes lately? Granted, John Boehner has that orange tan, which is always good for a laugh. But apart from Sarah Palin, who sometimes seems to be doing a subtle yet devastatingly vicious impression of herself, today's top politicians don't offer comedians a particularly target-rich environment.

When Obama won the 2008 election, a lot of people predicted that all the comedians who had been making fun of George W. Bush would be at a loss for jokes. There was an assumption that since they're a bunch of liberals, the comedians wouldn't go after Obama. But if comedy has an Obama problem, it doesn't have much to do with ideology. The guy is just difficult to mock.

Politicians who make good targets for humor tend to have a personality feature or physical characteristic, like a particular accent or a distinctive set of gestures, that are easily identifiable and thus can be exaggerated to make the politician look foolish, because exaggeration is what impressions and satire are built on. Some of these are simple and straightforward, like Bush's tendency to mangle his words. Others are more complicated but no less distinct, like Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain" charm, which simultaneously made you suspect you were being conned and like it.

The trouble with Obama is that he doesn't easily lend himself to mockery. He's famously cool -- never too hot, never too cold. And coolness itself is nothing if not a concerted effort to avoid being mocked. The most successful impressions -- like Darrell Hammond's Clinton or Will Ferrell's Bush -- may or may not perfectly ape the target's speech (Ferrell certainly didn't), but they capture something essential and absurd about the target, something that is seldom cool. The presidential impression currently featured on Saturday Night Live, by Fred Armisen, is a good re-creation of the president's way of talking. It just isn't all that funny.

Most figures in the past have had one or two characteristics on which comedians built their jokes. Bush was dumb, John McCain was old and grumpy, Clinton was a skirt-chaser, John Kerry was verbose and wooden, Al Gore was wooden, too. These caricatures, repeated endlessly on the late-night programs like Leno and Letterman (where the monologues do not exactly brim with creativity and originality) came to define the political figures.

But what's the joke about Obama? The late-night jokes are not as consistent, but if you look at the jokes conservatives make about him, they center on two themes: He's a socialist hell-bent on expanding government, and he has an inflated sense of self-regard. The problem is that the first is an evaluation of his policies -- and if you mock him for being a socialist, you end up (intentionally or not ) mocking those whose minds are gripped by feverish hatred of him, as Stephen Colbert does. As for the second, maybe Obama does think he's all that and a bag of chips. But he is, after all, the most powerful human on planet Earth, which robs any immodesty he might have of the incongruity from which humor often flows.

So it isn't that conservatives aren't trying to make fun of Obama -- they are, but they're laughing among themselves. You can usually get folks who already agree with you to laugh just by ridiculing the other side. But unless you can expand your audience beyond the true believers, the effect of the humor will be limited.

The satirist who has done that most successfully -- and the one who was told that without a Republican in the White House he'd be left jokeless -- is Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. It turned out that the transition to a Democratic White House wasn't really a problem for him. First, though Stewart is obviously a progressive, he and the show frequently make fun of Democrats, including President Obama (he has been critical of Obama over issues like the slow repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays). The show's primary target, furthermore, is the media itself, which not only provides endless fodder for humor (clips of the meeting of the mindless that is Fox & Friends never get old) but also makes the show less predictable and therefore more interesting than it would be if it existed solely to bash Republicans. Likewise, Comedy Central's other "fake news" program, The Colbert Report, is an extended mockery not of politicians but of media personalities like Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.

Stewart and Colbert weren't the first to offer "fake news" (you might remember Not Necessarily The News from the 1980s, not to mention Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update"), but they are certainly the defining political satire of our time. As Dannagal Young, a professor at the University of Delaware and an expert on the psychology and effects of political satire, told me, "Political satire over the past 10 years has moved in the direction of satirizing process and mode, rather than merely the political actors and policies. There is a lot more time spent critiquing the norms of news and the tropes of the news genre. Colbert's entire show illustrates this. To me, this shift simply illustrates the increasing dominance of our media over our political world as a whole."

In fact, Stewart is almost certainly the most beloved media figure on the left. There aren't any conservative comedians who have anywhere near Stewart's renown and influence -- and there never have been.

Is it because conservatives just aren't as funny as liberals? There are certainly funny conservatives, but there are also some fundamental things that tend to draw conservatives away from irreverent humor, like respect for tradition and authority. Which may mean that liberals are both more drawn to comedy and more likely to succeed at it.

Perhaps if Hillary Clinton had been elected president, the right would be investing in its comedy resources -- after all, they always loved making fun of her. But they're stuck with a president about whom it is difficult to make really good jokes, which means that they'll lose the opportunity to catch up to the left while there's a Democrat in the White House. And then when President Palin takes office, the left will really pull ahead in the comedic arms race.

Just kidding!

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