The Presidency and Other Joking Matters

Not long ago we heard the following joke: What’s black and white and red all over? Barack Obama.

The joke works better when told orally, as that troublesome homophone gives away the punchline when written, but it’s not a bad gag in any case. What’s most striking about the joke, though, is that it took nearly a full term for it to be told. It’s such an obvious idea, at least for those old enough to be familiar with the Cold War-era connotation of “red,” that it’s remarkable it didn’t occur to someone as far back as Obama’s “spread the wealth around” comment to Joe the Plumber in the ’08 campaign.

Hearing the late-arriving gag reminded of us how very rare are jokes about Obama, an absence that is conspicuous because presidents have traditionally been a major source of comedy. We thought that perhaps we had merely fallen out of the joke-telling loop, but the good folks at the web site have found an audio tape of professional comedians Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey making the same observation. Both men were once regulars on the fashionably leftist “Saturday Night Live” television program, and although that was several generations ago they remain au courant enough on the comedy circuit that they surely would have noticed any Obama humor afoot, and both report that they’re more likely to hear comics taking aim at such outdated targets as Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum.

Neither of the comedians offer a satisfactory explanation for the lack of Obama jokes, but the reasons seem obvious enough.

One is clearly the American skittishness about anything that touches on matters of race, or might be somehow perceived as doing so because the subject is African-American, an unfortunate tendency especially pronounced among the supposedly brave and transgressive entertainment class. Carvey admits that in many of the venues where he performs his impression of Obama provokes only a nervous silence, and although he doesn’t venture to say so we suspect he’s savvy enough to understand that it’s the audience’s discomfort with hearing a white person imitate a black person. Although Carvey’s brand of humor has always been a bit hyperactive for our tastes he is a gifted impressionist, and his mimicry of Obama is quite convincing without the slightest hint of a stereotyped black accent, so the silence can’t be attributed to his failings as a performer.

There’s also a lingering effect of the worshipful regard that the youthful target audience on had for Obama, back when he was the messiah who would rescue America from the much-ridiculed George W. Bush. Although the adoration has faded as the youth unemployment rate has risen, the prohibition on Obama jokes is still vigorously enforced by the show biz powers that be. Lovitz, a fairly amusing fellow whose considerable talents as a character actor could have been put to good use by an earlier era of Hollywood filmmakers, recently found this out when he deviated from his longtime liberalism to jape about Obama’s soak-the-rich tax schemes and was pilloried by the press and his fellow entertainers.

This is not healthy for a democracy, a form of government that has kept its leaders in check with satire since the days of Aristophanes, and it’s downright deadly for comedy. If today’s comics can’t find something to laugh about in the preening, preachy, inept Obama they’re unlikely to find it anywhere else.

— Bud Norman

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