The first Barack Obama joke we ever heard was told to us during the ’08 primaries, and it went: “Why can’t Obama laugh at himself? Because that would be racist.” Since then we’ve heard remarkably few Barack Obama jokes.
So rare and newsworthy are Obama jokes, in fact, that when a handful of mild ones were cracked at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday night it proved the biggest story of the weekend.
The paucity of jokes aimed at Obama is remarkable because presidents had previously been a traditional source of material for both amateur and professional comedians. We can recall a time when every lampshade-wearing cocktail party comic had an LBJ impression, which invariably began with “Mah fellow ‘mericans,” or a Richard Nixon impression, which eventually included an obligatory hump-shouldered “I am not a crook.” Jimmy Carter came in for much kidding, quite naturally, while Reagan was the butt of countless jokes, many of them told by himself, and George H.W. Bush single-handedly revived the tradition of the second-rate presidential impersonation. The comics would have preferred to have given Bill Clinton a pass, we suspect, but the Monica Lewinsky affair and assorted other scandals offered too much material that was impossible to resist.
When it comes to political jokes, George W. Bush warrants a paragraph of his own. Easily the most ridiculed president in memory, even without the benefit of Altoids, cigars, and zaftig interns, Bush was incessantly mocked with a sadistic glee in every nightclub, cable channel, and coffeehouse in the country. The gist of the jokes, generally, was that Bush was a Ivy League hayseed and a moronic evil genius, which never made much sense to us but always got a laugh from the more sophisticated audiences.
Since the election of Obama, however, the longstanding tradition of the presidential joke seems to have ended. If you’re on certain right wing e-mailing lists you’ll occasionally receive a joke aimed at Obama, but they’re almost always recycled material dating back several administrations, and they’re nowhere near so plentiful as the daily Bush barbs that were circulated during his administration. The professional comics will venture the infrequent Obama joke, but they’re usually no more than gentle joshing about some inconsequential characteristic, and the president’s critics are a far more common target.
Saturday’s much-ballyhooed performances at the correspondents’ shindig, which always features a comedian lampooning the president and the president lampooning himself, proves the point. The featured speakers were someone named Jimmy Kimmel, who hosts some sort of talk show on one or another of the networks at some well-past-primetime hour, and the President of the United States, a frequent guest on such talk shows. Both men were too in awe of their subject to make a serious joke, and wound up offering more flattery than satire.
Kimmel’s routing began promisingly when he turned to the president and said “Remember when the country rallied around you in hopes of a better tomorrow? That was hilarious.” It went downhill from there, however, and only a couple of his mostly unfunny gags were at all pointed. He made a reference to the Fast and Furious scandal, but it was more of an Eric Holder joke and seemed to go over the heads of an audience full of news people and entertainers, and he couldn’t have avoided a line about the recent Secret Service prostitution scandal, but it in no way implied that Obama bore any responsibility for the actions of his employees while they were on duty. Kimmel also made a joke suggesting that Obama has large ears, but devoted most of his very long time at the dais to attacking Mitt Romney and his failed Republican primary challengers
The president’s more steadfast defenders will insist that such deference is due to the office, and they’ll be right to some extent, but it should be noted that in the recent past the dinner has featured such aggressive fare as Stephen Colbert’s mean-spirited attack on Bush in 2005. The Obama-era speakers have also been unusually fawning, too, with the embittered comic Wanda Sykes using her time at the podium to crack up Obama by wishing that Rush Limbaugh would die of kidney failure.
Obama’s comedy routine opened with an offstage bit that began by poking fun at the “hot mic” incident that allowed the press to overhear him telling the Russian president that he planned to be more “flexible” in dealings during a second term, because there’s nothing funnier than nuclear appeasement, and ended with the surefire laugh-getting sound of a toilet flushing. The word “unpresidential” has been bandied about in the conservative press quite a bit lately, but we think it hardly does justice to the spectacle of Obama resorting to literal toilet humor for a cheap laugh. He also joked about his boyhood habit of eating dogs, the subject of yet another media brouhaha lately, and provided his own obligatory gag about the Secret Service’s penchant for whoring. The only genuinely funny moment in the routine came when he waxed serious about the heroic press, flatting his adoring audience with praise for their willing to “Ask the tough questions.”
– Bud Norman