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The Case Against Laughter

 [Guest post by Simon van Zuylen-Wood]

Barack Obama, you’ll recall, tried out a joke during Tuesday’s State of the Union address. Citing an onerous regulation that forced dairy farmers to prove they were capable of managing spills, Obama cracked, “With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk.” Yuk, yuk.

Thinking back on it, I can’t help but notice a parallel to last year’s requisite State of the Union joke. Then, Obama lamented that freshwater salmon were regulated by one federal agency; salmon by another: “I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked."

SOTU speeches are an opportunity to curry favor with both parties. That is one reason Obama likes mocking government’s inefficiencies—because it’s something we can all get behind, in theory. Bureaucracies can be so stifling and irrational, Obama is telling us, it’s plain laughable!

At the risk of ascribing too much importance to State of the Union speeches, here’s a case for cutting out the bureaucracy jokes. For one, conservatives don’t think government inefficiency is goofy. They think it’s tragic. Second, liberals tend to think tight government regulation, however goofy, is necessary. For example, see Gawker’s unusually earnest rebuke to the joke, which compiled a list of environmentally hazardous milk spills.

Despite the apparent enjoyment Joe Biden derives from them, it’s perhaps best to leave out the jokes altogether, no matter the context. See this NPR-produced word cloud, in which listeners chose the words that best described last year’s SOTU.

If last year’s “Win the Future” motif fell flat, this year’s theme, "the Revival of American Greatness," worked a bit better. It’d be a shame if the speech’s salient features were forgotten, all because viewers soured over a cheesy joke. Oy.