— Bud Norman
— Bud Norman
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 Breitbart.com 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would have noticed any Obama humor afoot, and both report that they’re more likely to hear comics taking aim at such outdated targets as Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum.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.
— Bud Norman
The observation is prompted by a story over at the invaluable Bretibart.com’s Big Hollywood site, gloating over the surprisingly paltry ratings for “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” both of which are attracting fewer viewers than such fare as “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” “Bad Girls Club,” and professional wrestling. The paltriness of the shows’ ratings is surprising because both “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” are widely hyped by other media, and their stars are often lauded as the modern days heirs to Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain, but upon reflection it is not difficult to believe that the shows have a limited appeal.
Left-wing humor has been a rather smug and self-righteous genre since at least the late-‘60s heyday of Lenny Bruce, The Smothers Brothers, Dick Gregory, and Mort Sahl, but in recent years it has become especially tedious, predictable, and downright mean. The left-wing comic continues to think himself a brave and intrepid iconoclast, challenging the stale conventions of an uptight and conformist society with devastating wit, but they never challenge the assumptions of their like-minded audiences nor seem to notice that it’s no longer the 1950s and that all of the conventions of that era have already been quite thoroughly demolished. Lenny Bruce did indeed run afoul of the law by dropping a few naughty words into his stunningly un-funny routines back in the pre-cable days, and has been hailed as a champion of free speech ever since, but these days an equally un-funny comic such as the execrable Louis CK can devote an entire set to a stunningly vulgar rant about Sarah Palin’s daughter having Down’s Syndrome and instead of an arrest he gets an invitation to address the Radio and Television Correspondents Association.
The past three years or so have been particularly tough for the left-wing comic, not just because they lost their favorite whipping boy in George W. Bush but because it’s so glaringly absurd for a comic to pose as brave and cutting edge while speaking truth to the out-of-power.
One of the last episodes of “The Daily Show” we bothered to watch was during the early days of the Obama administration, when the euphoria of hope and change was still rampant in the popular culture, and we tuned in merely to see how Jon Stewart would continue his anti-establishment pose now that his hero had become the establishment. The big headline story of that day was Obama’s executive order to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and we were curious to see what humor he might find it that. Predictably enough, the joke was that there were still a few Republicans left in Congress and they were so laughably absurd as to raise questions about the decision. The show aired some footage of a Rep. Pete King wondering if the prisoners would be set free to continue their terrorist activities, transferred to an American prison in a community that would become a natural terrorism target, tried in a court with the defense given access to top-secret anti-terrorism protocols, or some other problematic solution, followed by a cut back to Jon Stewart responding with one of his “can-you-believe-this-guy” stunned expressions. The audience howled at this Swiftian riposte, but we couldn’t help thinking that King had raised some reasonable and not at all funny questions, and we now can’t help noticing that three years later the best and brightest minds of the Obama administration are still trying to come up with better answers than a comically stunned expression.
— Bud Norman