Even in times of world peace, economic stability and oil-free coastlines, of which the present is not such a time, it’s uncomfortable to see a U.S. president doing standup comedy.
Example from Saturday’s White House Correspondents Dinner: “Unfortunately, John McCain couldn’t make it. Recently he claimed that he never identified himself as a maverick. And we all know what happens in Arizona when you don’t have ID: Adios, amigo!”
It’s not that President Obama, Commander-in-Schtick as The New York Daily News called him, is bad at this sort of thing. With material from ace speechwriters Jon Favreau and Jon Lovett, the president was actually quite good – even if a few quips, like the one about immigration, fell flat. Indeed, the president was far funnier than the night’s hired pro, Jay Leno, whose awkward use of note cards only made his skimpy material worse (“Senator John Edwards…a personal injury attorney who turned out to be a sleazeball. Who coulda seen that coming?”).
Much has been written over the years about whether it’s wise for journalists who cover the White House to rub shoulders with key administration players in this setting. The 96-year-old tradition itself is not problematic, but the president’s role as jokester becomes less appropriate each year in direct proportion to the public’s increased access to what was once an under-publicized event.
This is not to say a president should have one standard of behavior for high-profile events and a lower standard in private. Jokes like those delivered Saturday night, while relatively harmless, are uncomfortable to watch out of context, worldwide, via the Internet and cable-TV.
It’s probably asking too much for a president to issue heartfelt advice to U. of Michigan grads Saturday morning (“we can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down”), and deliver comedic barbs at the Washington Hilton a few hours later (GOP Chairman Michael Steele is “the Notorious G.O.P.”).
In truth, it’s been a while since Friar’s Club-type comedy was fashionable. When the goal is to make half the room hoot and the other half squirm, it’s not particularly Presidential, which is why Don Rickles never attained office above Roastmaster.
That holds true for vice presidents as well. Joe Biden spoke in March at the Radio and Television Correspondents dinner and strained, painfully, to be one of the boys. (“My job has its perks. Tiger Woods paid me a visit and gave me some tips. Hey, guys! They were golf tips.”)
It was particularly unattractive – at least via clips preserved on the Internet for all time – to hear the vice president say “hell” seven times in a 12 minute speech, in an awkward attempt to be viewed as with it and clever.
Americans enjoy seeing their president in occasional nonpolitical roles: throwing out the first pitch of the baseball season, playing with his kids and dog on the White House lawn, running on the beach in Hawaii, and even making a guest appearance now and then on latenight TV. Insult comedy, however, just like “Dancing with the Stars,” is best left for all the free time that comes with being out of office.
The funny thing about our changing times is that while nowadays almost anything goes, not everything plays well. C-SPAN and the Internet have seen to it that all the world’s a stage, and in many corners there is a pretty tough crowd.
“Today’s 24/7 echo-chamber amplifies the most inflammatory soundbites louder and faster than ever before.It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out.”
That’s what President Obama told the graduates during his standup appearance in Michigan. Appropriately, there were few, if any, laughs.
Peter Funt may be reached at www.candidcamera.com.
©2010 Peter Funt. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. newspaper syndicate. For info call Cari Dawson Bartley at 800 696 7561 or e-mail Cari@cagle.com.
Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker. He’s also the long-time host of “Candid Camera.” A collection of his DVDs is available at www.candidcamera.com.