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On Presidential Comedy, as Intended or Inadvertent

Comedy is the most subjectively judged of all the lively arts, and there’s no accounting for what one laughs at.
We’ve always considered Laurel & Hardy comedic geniuses, and always thought The Three Stooges boringly low-brow and grotesque, even though they were telling the same profoundly true and universally funny slapstick joke about some poor schmuck getting hit on the head with a two-by-four or falling into a deep hole. One of our formative childhood heroes was W.C. Fields, whose cynical and sneering and subtly self-loathing sense of humor used to show up on the late-late-shows we were allowed to watch during summer vacations, but for the most part we find the cynicism and sneering that dominate today’s comedy shallow and self-righteous and unfunny.
So it is with the related yet significantly different matter of presidential wit. Presidents aren’t expected to be stand-up-comics-in-chief, nor should they be, but rhetoric is required for the job, as is establishing a personal connection with the people, as well as having a realistic grasp of the absurdity of one’s self and the world one lives in, and a certain amount of sense of humor is essential to pull that off. The job also occasional entails speaking at such events as the Al Smith Memorial Dinner or the Gridiron club’s annual review or the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, or other events where a few moments of ghost-written comedy is expected to be delivered with a certain panache, but in these cases one can usually account for one’s tastes by one’s political opinions.
President Donald Trump’s most loyal fans have always found him downright hilarious, cracking up at his mocking mimicry of a reporter’s physical handicap or nicknaming a shorter rival “Little,” but we always rolled our eyes under our high brows and heaved a sigh and lamented what had become of both comedy and the presidency. Trump’s impolite and unfunny routine at the campaign season’s white-tie-and-tails dinner in New York City during the campaign, which crossed the long-standing tradition of gentle joshing and to “Crooked Hillary is so crooked” jokes, which the oh-so-polite crowd of fellow well-helled New Yorkers booed, and although the hicks in the sticks loved it the reviews were mostly negative. After that Trump skipped his administration’s first White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner, where all the “fake news” media invite some smart-ass comic to lampoon the president and expect his to respond gentle joshing and self-deprecation. Trump did accept an invitation to the Gridiron Club’s latest annual schmooze-fest, though, and he got surprisingly mixed reviews.
The gathering Gridiron Club of elite Washington correspondents is more discreet than the White House Correspondents’, whose nationally televised dinner rivaled the Golden Globes for ratings during President Barack Obama’s years, but of course Trump knew that his performance in front of an audience of journalists wasn’t going unreported. He eschewed the Crooked Hillary bits, never once mentioned “fake news” in his gentle joshing of the press, and generally disarmed his knife-sharpening critics. He reportedly got a deservedly big laugh from the tough room by saying that his staff worried he couldn’t pull of self-deprecating, but he assured them that “Nobody does self-deprecating humor better than me.”
Which is pretty darned funny, because it was heretofore so untrue, and we give credit to whomever came up with the line, and expect that it was Hope Hicks’ parting gift to talk Trump into saying it, but the hard-core fans probably prefer such golden oldie punch lines as “Build that wall” and “Lock her up.” They won’t notice, though, as the self-deprecating shtick wasn’t videotaped, but maybe this does signal a pivot to the old humble routine. After all the cynical and sneering late-night comics had a ball with footage of the wind and Marine One’s rotors blowing Trump’s careful comb-over away and revealing a large and unusual bald spot down the back of Trump’s head, the president recently regaled an actual rally crowd but turning around to show off his more carefully-coifed neck-to-forehead, and the audience ate it up, and the critics were largely disarmed.
This surely won’t end Trump’s endless shock jock insult comic shtick, though, and none of it rises to our admittedly old-fashioned standards of presidential wit. We’re old enough to remember President Ronald Reagan’s amiable and downright Andy Griffith-esque homespun humor, even after he’d been shot in the chest, and we’ve read enough history to regard President Abraham Lincoln as the gold standard. Lincoln was the fellow who came up with the “You can fool some of the people some of the time” aphorism, as Trump lives by in his condensed reading of the text, and the teetotaling Trump would have never come up with the line about buying all the Union generals whatever brand of whisky Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was drinking.
The several-inches-taller-than-Trump Lincoln didn’t resort to calling the diminutive Democratic incumbent Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas “Little Stevie” during their famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, but instead mocked his gangly appearance with the stilly-wide quoted “A man’s legs should be just long enough to the reach the ground.” Many years later the then-hilarious Woody Allen wrote a droll piece for The New Yorker that had Lincoln’s gag writer suggesting a man’s legs should be just enough to reach his torso, as the visual image of the disembodied torso reaching toward the earthbound legs was funnier, and although we consider that an improvement on the original we don’t expect either level of wit these days.
Trump also had a line about a North Korean overture to start talks on the scary nuclear situation over there, and his arguably brusque response, but no one was quite sure if that was meant as a joke or not. Trump frequently blurts out things that sound quite scary at first listening, but another news cycle later the White House press secretary explains that c’mon, he was obviously kidding, and the die-hard fans crack up, and we roll our eyes under our high-brows and sigh about what’s become of comedy and the presidency.
The night before the Gridiron Club’s fancy-schmantzy show Trump was at his Mar-a-Lago resort in front of a crowd of steep-dues-paying fan club members, and riffed about how his good friend Chinese dictator Xi Jiping recently repealed China’s term limits on dictators, and how we ought to try that here, and of course the knife-sharpening critics made something of that. He was just kidding, of course, so the critics looked slightly ridiculous, but Trump has often said that he’s not really kidding when he’s kidding, and both the die-hard fans and that knife-sharpening critics both know that.
There are some things that more traditional presidents don’t joke about at all, except maybe in the mot private circumstances, but somehow it seems to be the conservatives who want to do away with such essential traditions. As much as we like Trump’s recent self-deprecating turn, we worry that it doesn’t reflect any serious self-evaluation of his mean cocksure soul, and his die-hard fans are no doubt hoping the same thing.

— Bud Norman

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The Presidency and Other Joking Matters

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.”

This will be described as “self-deprecating” in most news stories, but the overall effect was more self-serving. Delivered with characteristic cockiness, the basic comic premise of the president’s routine was that he’s so darned awesome it’s funny. Such hubris should be the stuff of classic satire, especially when contrasted with such humble results, but apparently that would be racist.

— Bud Norman