NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” hasn’t cracked a Joe Biden joke since April 15, when cast member Michael Che quipped, “President Biden has tried to downplay the recent leak of classified U.S. documents that were posted on social media, because when you’re over 80 a couple of leaks are nothing to be embarrassed about.”
With strikes by writers and performers in their fifth month, late night TV remains shuttered and with it most political humor. That benefits all politicians, of course, but none more profoundly than President Biden.
One month after the strike began, you’ll recall, Biden tripped over a sandbag on a stage at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and took a spill that could have been comedy gold. It was reminiscent of the fall Gerald Ford had while exiting Air Force One in 1975 — an incident that SNL mined for over a year, making Chevy Chase, who played Ford, a big star, while contributing to Ford’s loss to Jimmy Carter in 1976.
But with late night TV dark, there were no Biden-as-a-stumbler routines. Dana Carvey, who does a great POTUS impression, was left to perform his Biden bit for a theater audience of about 1,300 in Monterey, California. Falling flat on his face, he assured the crowd in perfect Biden pitch, "Feeling good. Watch me run — cause I know how to run!" (Carvey jumps to his feet and “jogs” while barely moving his feet but furiously pumping his arms.)
Were it not for the strikes, Donald Trump’s four criminal indictments would also be cause for a late night comedy frenzy, similar to Bill Clinton’s impeachment woes. On SNL, Darrell Hammond portrayed Clinton (sounding very much like Trump): “If I didn’t know better, I’d say people like me more when I’m screwing up. I was better off when I was smoking pot in England and grabbing ass in the White House.”
In researching my book “Playing POTUS,” I found that Trump was history’s most lampooned president. Clinton was tied for second place with Ronald Reagan. What distinguished Trump and Reagan, however, is that they seemed to relish the attention. Rich Little, who was Reagan’s friend and mimic, told me Reagan loved jokes at his own expense, even when Little mocked the president’s advanced age and frequent memory lapses.
Trump was a bit more brittle — often slamming Alec Baldwin, who played him on SNL — but it was largely an act. Trump was never damaged by the jokes; indeed, much of the comedy fueled his base, just as recent criminal indictments appear to have done.
While Trump is living confirmation of the adage that all publicity is good publicity, Biden is the opposite. Favoring a low profile, he doesn’t pal around with comedians as Reagan did with Little, George H.W. Bush did with Carvey, and George W. Bush did with a lesser known comic named Steve Bridges. Even Gerald Ford, who suffered from barbs delivered by Chevy Chase, invited Chase to perform with him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and spoke kindly of him after leaving office.
In 2020 the pandemic gave Joe Biden literal shelter from the rigors of campaigning and now, as the 2024 race takes shape, strikes have put the kibosh on jokes that could damage his re-election prospects. The last president to experience such a comedy moratorium was Lyndon Johnson in 1963, following the Kennedy assassination. The nation was numb and comics were temporarily silenced.
Unfortunately for LBJ, when performers like Tom and Dick Smothers finally went back to work they roasted him so brutally for several years — primarily over his Vietnam War policies — that Johnson surprised the nation by withdrawing from the 1968 presidential race.
As with Vietnam, plus civil rights protests in the tumultuous 1960s, the current state of the nation and presidential politics aren’t really laughing matters. Yet, comedians tend to disregard that, unless a strike gets in the way.
At the Correspondents’ Dinner in 2022 Trevor Noah said, “I stood here tonight and I made fun of the president of the United States, and I am going to be fine.” How fine Joe Biden will be in the coming months after comics get back to work is another matter.
Copyright 2023 Peter Funt distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
Peter Funt’s latest book is “Playing POTUS: The Power of America’s Acting Presidents,” about comedians who impersonated presidents.