If politics isn't a joking matter, why do so many pols crack wise? A defense of Stewart-Colbert rallies.

Media criticism.
Oct. 27 2010 6:44 PM

If Politics Isn't a Joking Matter, Why Do So Many Pols Crack Wise?

An oblique defense of Stewart-Colbert rallies on the Mall.

Should comedy and politics be allowed to mix? Click image to expand.
Should comedy and politics be allowed to mix?

I promised not to write about Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's dueling rallies on the Mall, primarily because I had so little to say about the subject. Then Ryan Kearney, a reporter from TBD.com, called to ask for my views on the controversy, and suddenly I found myself proving Arthur Koestler's maxim that "the stream of language actually carries the thought" by spewing a column's worth of Stewart-Colbert opinions in response to Kearney's queries. I'd still be talking about the comedians' rallies if Kearney hadn't finally hung up the phone.

Kearney's story rounds up the anti-rally pieces by Slate's Timothy Noah and Anne Applebaum, the Washington Post's Carlos Lozada, Big Hollywood's John Nolte, the Baltimore Sun's David Zurawik, and others and then argues that the National Mall is a perfectly fine place for a comedy-flavored political rally or a political-flavored comedy show.

Kearney's piece is very good, and I endorse it completely. As he notes, the Mall is hardly hallowed ground. It's the place where Britney Spears performed "in 2003 for the NFL season kickoff" dressed in a halter top and gyrating her bejeweled navel at the audience.

If Kearney and I are wrong—if comedians really have no business cracking political jokes within earshot of the Lincoln Memorial—shouldn't that logic bar politicians from cracking wise in their political appearances, something they (or their court-jester proxies) have been doing since the beginning of time?

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Successful politicians have always stocked their rhetorical tool bag with a few jokes. Although I don't think President Woodrow Wilson ever entertained the League of Nations with stand-up, President Franklin Roosevelt routinely parried his Republican opponents with gags, as in this "Fala Speech." John Kennedy formalized the relationship with gag writers during his 1960 presidential campaign, recruiting one of the very best. In his autobiography, comedian Mort Sahl writes of Kennedy's father, Joseph Kennedy, phoning him up and saying, "I understand you're preeminent in the field of political humor. I want you to write some things for Johnny." Sahl agreed. Extremely well-paid gag writers have been propping up presidents and other politicians ever since.

For two weeks in 1954, Ronald Reagan performed a "humorous monologue"—his words—as part of a nightclub act at the Last Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. Those comic skills came in handy later in his incarnation as the joke-telling governor of California and then as the stand-up president of the United States. One of Reagan's unscripted "gems" from 1984 had him altering, in his warm-up, the official text of his weekly radio broadcast to say that we would start bombing Russia "in five minutes."

During his 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon appeared on the NBC comedy show Laugh In to speak its catch phrase, "Sock it to me." President Bill Clinton did all the joke-telling presidents who preceded him one better by making a comic reel for the 2000 White House Correspondents Dinner. In it, he does laundry, washes the presidential limo, rehearses his Oscar acceptance speech, plays a board game with a general, and bids for stuff on eBay. The joke is that as his presidency winds down, he has nothing to do. Ha. Ha. In a phenomenal misreading of the nation's mood, George W. Bush made a comic slide show for the 2004 correspondents dinner in which he narrated his personal search for "weapons of mass destruction" inside the White House. To a photo of him peering under furniture, he said, "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be here somewhere." Ha. Ha. Ha.

In his April Slate piece about jokey political speechwriting, Christopher Beam judges President Barack Obama to possess both good comedic timing and good taste in material. * In May, the Washington Post's Paul Farhi called Obama the "Insult Comic President" for his digs at Michael Steele ("the Notorious GOP"), Mitt Romney, Charlie Crist, and John Boehner, whom he labeled "a person of color."

Everybody relies on jokes to provide social lubrication to formal or awkward settings, but in the case of politicians, joke-telling is usually an overcompensation mechanism. They rarely possess the sense of humor reflected in the professionally written jokes they read aloud. One measure of their basic humorlessness can be found in the volume of self-deprecating jokes they tell. Self-deprecation is just a clever way of boasting, of saying, "I am so strong that I can say that I'm weak so that you understand that I'm really strong, and you will acknowledge my power with your laughter."

Politicians also lean on humor because it can substitute for logical argument, allowing them to make a point in the absence of facts or logic. If you find yourself laughing at a politician's joke, check your wallet.