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Obama And The Comedy Question

Bill Carter has an interesting piece in today's Times about the difficulties comedians are having finding a comic frame for Obama--or really making fun of him in any way. "[S]o far, no true punch lines have landed," Carter writes.

Why? The reason cited by most of those involved in the shows is that a fundamental factor is so far missing in Mr. Obama: There is no comedic “take” on him, nothing easy to turn to for an easy laugh, like allegations of Bill Clinton’s womanizing, or President Bush’s goofy bumbling or Al Gore’s robotic persona.

“The thing is, he’s not buffoonish in any way,” said Mike Barry, who started writing political jokes for Johnny Carson’s monologues in the waning days of the Johnson administration and has lambasted every presidential candidate since, most recently for Mr. Letterman. “He’s not a comical figure,” Mr. Barry said.

Carter mostly bills this as a problem for comedians--and, maybe secondarily, John McCain (who's on the wrong end of the punchline gap). He goes on at length about the ways in which comedy writers are pulling their hair out searching for themes that will resonate. It almost reminds you of the Clinton campaign's struggle to impose a narrative on Obama.

But, while the comedy industry may be hurting, I think it's potentially a bigger issue for Obama himself. Carter hints at the reason when he finally addresses the elephant in the room midway through the piece:

Of course, the question of race is also mentioned as one reason Mr. Obama has proved to be so elusive a target for satire.

“Anything that has even a whiff of being racist, no one is going to laugh,” said Rob Burnett, an executive producer for Mr. Letterman. “The audience is not going to allow anyone to do that.”

Right. And the problem for Obama is that people tend to vote for a presidential candidate they feel personally comfortable with. If people aren't comfortable with humor about Obama--if they're reluctant to laugh at him for fear of being thought racist, or of crossing some line of political correctness--then some of them probably aren't comfortable with him, period.

Granted, the returns to being made fun of diminish pretty quickly. You never want to turn into a Kerry- or Gore-style object of derision, to say nothing of Gerald Ford or Dan Quayle. So there are real advantages to having a comedy force field.

But the campaign faces a tricky balancing act, if nothing else. On the one hand, they have to be pretty vigilant against smears that are genuinely scurrilous or racist. On the other, they have to avoid the impression that Obama is somehow above ridicule, which is a status no president will ever enjoy (nor should they).

That's why, in addition to the reasons Isaac and Mike laid out, I thought it was a real mistake for them to seize on The New Yorker cover. They may have been right on the merits--it wasn't the most successful piece of satire I've ever seen--but the impression they created (that you need to think twice before bringing humor into discussions of Obama) was one they probably needed to avoid.  

P.S. As a colleague points out, the campaign does seem to be aware of this problem. That's probably why you occasionally hear Michelle Obama deflating her husband a bit. And Obama himself can be self-deprecating. It wouldn't be a bad idea to get him on these late-night shows inflicting his own punchlines if no one else is going to do it.

--Noam Scheiber