On the mechanics of political humor

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Right to the point: The reason the talk shows and “Saturday Night Live” haven’t made fun of Obama much isn’t that they’re all liberals who can’t stand to make jokes about their guy. It’s that Obama hasn’t given them much to grab on to.

Bill Clinton was a gift to comedians: overweight, Southern, and promiscuous. It didn’t matter that the writers and performers generally supported him politically. A joke is a joke, and Clinton gave them plenty of material. Likewise, you had Al Gore the stiff robot, followed by Al Gore the environmental crusader. There’s always been Ted Kennedy the fat drunk. Meanwhile, plenty of Republican politicians have gone unscathed simply because they weren’t colorful enough to make fun of.

Most of the political humor on these shows isn’t really about politics. It’s about personalities and appearances. Think back to Dana Carvey’s legendary portrayal of George Bush on “SNL.” Did it have anything to do with the president’s policies? Nope. In fact, all there really was to it was a repetition of some of his catchphrases and a vaguely accurate impersonation of his voice. They were lucky they had Carvey, who could latch on to those things and run with them.

Obama is more problematic. As far as his speech goes, he says “uh” a lot, but that’s not much to go on. His voice and delivery are not marked by a particular accent or style. “SNL” has Fred Armisen playing him, but he’s not very good at it yet. He hasn’t found his “wouldn’t be prudent” or “not gonna do it,” to name Carvey’s main Bush-impersonating tools.

What about Obama’s lack of experience? Couldn’t they make jokes about that? The problem is, he doesn’t come across as someone who’s inexperienced. When he speaks, he sounds authoritative and intelligent. People would understand what you meant if you made a joke about Obama’s inexperience, but since they don’t generally perceive him that way, it wouldn’t have the immediate gut-level response that humor needs to be effective. Dan Quayle was youthful and inexperienced — and then he sealed his fate by making a few hilarious verbal gaffes and appearing stupid. If he hadn’t done that — if he had seemed smart and capable to people — the “he’s young and inexperienced” theme would have quickly dried up.

One element of Obama that would be ripe for satire is the Messianic devotion some people have to him. Of course, then you’re really making fun of his supporters, not the man himself, but still, it’s something.

Another thing about Obama is that he’s black but doesn’t come across as a stereotypical black man. There was a hilarious “SNL” sketch about 10 years ago where host David Alan Grier played Bryant Gumbel interviewing someone on the “Today” show. He was very prissy and “white” on camera, the way Gumbel is, then became a stereotypically loud, black ho-slapper during commercial breaks. (“Girl, your perfume STANK!”) Then again, that was OK because Grier was black. Fred Armisen isn’t. As long as “SNL” has a non-black man playing Obama, they can’t really do anything race-related.

And now here’s the real problem: If you have to go LOOKING for something to make jokes about, the jokes probably aren’t going to work. The nature of this kind of comedy is that it has to play on people’s already-held perceptions of the targets you’re making fun of.

A strongly right-wing publication or TV show could probably make its audience laugh with jokes about Obama’s inexperience, because that audience sees him that way. Most of the shows we’re talking about, however, are general-audience programs. They have to figure out how their entire, vast, broad viewership sees things, and make jokes that will hit home to them. That’s why the jokes usually aren’t about anyone’s actual political views or policies. Those things are harder to summarize in a few words, and, sad but true, wouldn’t get the immediate response from viewers that a simple joke about Dick Cheney shooting a guy in the face would.

Why don’t they make fun of Joe Biden? The same reason as Obama: He’s just not a very colorful character. He’s somewhat famous among political watchers for being long-winded, but that’s not something the average American has seen. It’s something the average American has only read about. (“Apparently, Joe Biden is really long-winded! Huh!”) Biden’s high-profile public appearances don’t offer much for a satirist to mock other than his gigantic game-show-host smile. And since he’d been on the political scene for a long time when Obama chose him, there weren’t those get-to-know-you TV interviews like Sarah Palin had, which might have given Biden a chance to embarrass himself with some gaffes (something else he’s “famous” for, but only in political circles).

The Republicans, unfortunately, have two figures with very easy-to-mock characteristics: an old guy and Sarah Palin. And Sarah Palin, like Bill Clinton, is a gift to humorists. People keep wondering — OK, one person keeps wondering — why I’ve made fun of Palin and not Biden or Obama. Who I’m voting for has little to do with it. Like I said with regard to the talk shows and “SNL,” the writer’s personal opinions are almost irrelevant compared to the potential humor quotient.

The fact is, you gotta go where the jokes are. It’s not like I set out to find ways to make fun of Republicans while holding the Democrats sacrosanct. Believe me, if McCain had picked some ordinary, uncolorful politician as his running mate, I probably wouldn’t be making any political jokes at all this season, apart from the occasional “John McCain is old” crack. And if Obama had picked Hillary Clinton, there would be all kinds of material there. I usually don’t do a lot of political stuff at all. But when a larger-than-life figure appears on the scene, and it’s someone everyone is talking and laughing about, then of course I’m going to go with it. It’s not even really political humor. It’s more like celebrity humor, where the celebrity happens to be a politician.

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