Why are the president’s “jokes” (scripted or not) so lame?
The answer is a three-letter-word (or is that four letters, Joe?): E-G-O.
Barack Obama is constitutionally incapable of self-deprecation, because self-deprecation requires sincere humility. And the Obamessiah — Lincoln/JFK/FDR/Reagan/Soul-Fixer/World Savior/Mighty Mouse rolled into one — doesn’t seem to have a molecule of sincere humility in his body. To laugh at yourself, you have to really be laughing at yourself, not engaging in coy self-aggrandizement.
J.P. Freire illuminated the root of Obama’s humor-challengedness last fall: Good read.
Freire breaks Obama’s “jokes” into two categories: “I’m Great” and “I’m Only Pretty Great.” Indeed, if you watched Leno last night (or read through the entire transcript here), you’ll see that pretty much all of Obama’s attempts at humor fall into those categories. Look at the opening “jokes” about the Secret Service and related entourage following him:
MR. LENO: …Now, you know, it’s funny, because the last time you were here, you walked in, you had your jacket on your finger and you had the two guys with you.
MR. OBAMA: Right.
MR. LENO: And that was it. Big change?
MR. OBAMA: You know, I was mentioning earlier, we landed yesterday and then –- this is an example of life in the bubble. We landed at the fairground down in Costa Mesa. And I see the fairground where I think we’re having this town hall and I said, well, why don’t we walk over there? Secret Service says, no, sir, it’s 750 yards. (Laughter.)
So I was trying to calculate –- well, that’s like a five-minute walk? “Yes, sir. Sorry.” (Laughter.)
Now, they let me walk on the way back. But, you know, the doctor is behind me with the defibrillator. (Laughter.)
MR. LENO: Wow.
MR. OBAMA: Michelle jokes about how our motorcade –- you know, we’ve got the ambulance and then the caboose and then the dog sled. (Laughter.) The submarine. (Laughter.) There’s a whole bunch of stuff going on.
Or this exchange about the privilege of flying on Air Force One:
MR. LENO: Let me ask you some personal things. Now, how cool is it to fly in Air Force One? (Laughter.)
MR. OBAMA: Now, let me tell you, I personally think it’s pretty cool. Especially because they give you, you know, the jacket with the seal on it. (Laughter.)
A more, well, presidential president might have offered thanks and praise to the men and women who protect him, ensure his safe transport, and staff his plush residence/playground, instead of trying to score a few, cheap, lame late-night laughs — one of which backfired miserably.
But then again, a more presidential president with a full plate of domestic and foreign policy troubles on his hands in only the second month of his tenure wouldn’t have been sitting on Jay Leno’s set in the first place.
Commenter Flyoverman: “You don’t have to tell a joke when you are one.”
You know who knows how to bring the funny? Mark Steyn: ROFL!
Flashback: Remembering the master of presidential humor, Ronald Reagan.
And another remembrance from Doug Gamble:
Typical of his inner confidence and easy-going manner, Reagan loved jokes that poked fun at himself. But he also realized that a side benefit of self-deprecating humor, especially as he employed it, is its effectiveness in disarming criticism. When 1984 Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale accused Reagan of “government by amnesia,” the president countered with, “I thought that remark accusing me of having amnesia was uncalled for. I just wish I could remember who said it.”
When it became known that he would occasionally nod off at the White House during the day, he said, “I’ve given my aides instructions that if trouble breaks out in any of the world’s hot spots they should wake me up immediately — even if I’m in a Cabinet meeting.” And, “Things have been awfully busy at the White House lately. I’ve really been burning the mid-day oil.”
He loved joking about his advanced age, once telling the White House Correspondents Dinner, “I’ve been around so long, I can remember when a hot story broke and reporters would run in yelling ‘Stop the chisels.'” And, “It was easier to run for president when I was a boy. Back then there were only 13 states.”
But he also used humor to engage the opponent head-on, for example when he told an audience, “The Democrats have a knee-jerk addition to tax increases, and every time their knee jerks, you get kicked.” And, “I’ve been losing weight on something called the Democrat Diet. The way it works is you only eat dessert on days when our opponents say something good about America.”
Cultural references were often the basis of Reagan’s humor, as when he said, “The other side’s promises are a little like Minnie Pearl’s hat. They both have big price tags hanging from them.” And, “If my opponent’s campaign were a TV show it would be ‘Let’s Make a Deal.’ You’d get to trade your prosperity for the surprise behind the curtain.”
Such lines appealed to Reagan’s instincts to go with humor that not only elicited a laugh from the audience, but also scored political points.
And unlike many politicians, he could get away with delivering a partisan line without sounding mean, thanks to his twinkle-in-the-eye, tongue-in-cheek delivery. Although he employed his acting and communications skills throughout a speech, they really shot to the fore when he was delivering humor. His timing and “feel” for a joke, whether a one-liner or long form, made him a humor writer’s dream come true.
It was old-friend humor that came to the rescue, of course, when he was on the ropes after a poor showing against Mondale in their first debate in 1984. With the media speculating whether Reagan’s age had made him unfit for office, he put the issue to bed by unleashing, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Mondale could only laugh along with the audience.
For all the hours of coaching and study that go into presidential debates, Reagan essentially won two of the three he participated in with humor — the one noted above and the debate with President Jimmy Carter with the simple but devastating line, “There you go again.”