For political comedians, the joke’s not on Obama
What’s so unfunny?
That’s what some comics - citing the scarcity of satire directed at President Obama and his administration - want to know.
Claiming that his peers are “panicky” about “being called a racist,” stand-up legend Jackie Mason said too many once-fearless satirists are settling for “hero worship” of the new U.S. president.
The Great Presidential Comedy Drought of 2009 can’t be chalked off to a lack of satirical fodder, said comic Jeffrey Jena, founder of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy blog. (“Looking at politics and life from the right side,” proclaims its motto.)
“Letterman used to do a ‘Bushism of the Week.’ ” Why hasn’t he started one with Obama?” Mr. Jena said. “There’s plenty of those moments, the ‘Ohs, and ‘Umms’ or ‘I don’t speak Austrian.’ ”
“Late Show” host David Letterman was scathing in his mockery of President George W. Bush. But on his show recently, he scolded those who would mock the new president’s reliance on the teleprompter for “political nitpicking,” saying Mr. Obama is “at least out there trying” to cope with “impossible” political challenges.
“What really can you say wrong” about the determined new president, Mr. Letterman asked rhetorically while introducing a short film called “Teleprompter vs. No Teleprompter.” The segment contrasted a clip of a fluent passage of rhetoric from a formal Obama address to Congress with one of a tongue-tied Mr. Bush trying to extemporize in a televised informal question-and-answer format.
Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show,” another erstwhile scourge of presidential foibles during the Bush years, has morphed into a political loyalist, rising to the defense of Mr. Obama with angry rants against critics of the president such as CNBC’s Jim Cramer and Internet news aggregator (and Washington Times columnist) Andrew Breitbart.
To some, like self-identified Christian comic Brad Stine, the kid-gloves treatment of Mr. Obama is blatant political cheerleading.
“Because their candidate was elected, they’re hesitant to mock that thing which they approve of,” Mr. Stine said.
Others see comics simply deferring to the sensitivities of audiences who aren’t ready to a laugh at a president who’s not just a political leader but a transcendent historical symbol of black achievement.
“In New York, nobody wants to hear anything anti-Obama,” said Linda Smith, a stand-up comic, Obama booster and teacher at Caroline’s School of Comedy in New York. “And even if they do, right-leaning comics must walk through a historical minefield to mock the first black president.”
Radio and Fox News Channel talk show host Glenn Beck, who kicks off a six-city stand-up comedy tour on June 1 in Denver, suggested that both fear and political calculation are inhibiting factors. Comedians like Mr. Letterman are “either afraid, or they know the power of comedy as a weapon and they like using it as that,” he said.
“We’re now into biased comedy. We can’t even laugh without a political agenda,” said Mr. Beck, who cites “The Simpsons” as a show that skewers both sides without fear or favor.
Mr. Mason, for one, has no qualms about tweaking the new president, explaining that it’s all a matter of striking the right tone.
“People love it. I don’t do it with hate. Even liberals laugh at it,” he said. “The truth of the matter is, if it doesn’t sound like hate, and it sounds like a legitimate joke, it’s OK.”
Julia Gorin, an avowedly conservative comic, is also careful to create the right atmosphere. She said she begins the Obama part of her act by reminding audiences how her fellow comics have been taking flack for the lack of Obama jokes.
“That orients people the right way,” Miss Gorin said. “I’ll run into problems, sensitivities, without doing that.”
Can the vacuum of uninhibited presidential satire create an opening within the comedy ranks for a new breed of right-leaning comics?
Comedian Nick DiPaolo said that although the new administration provides an opening for conservative humorists, that won’t mean they suddenly start appearing on Mr. Letterman’s couch.
Mr. DiPaolo, who mixes conservative-friendly material into his act, said the people behind the major entertainment shows “aren’t going to let someone right of center jump into the arena.”
Lee Camp, a left-leaning stand-up comic and Huffington Post contributor, questions whether the pool of right-leaning comics is big enough to take advantage of any opening created by the election of Mr. Obama.
Creative types tend to lean left, both in comedy and in other art forms, Mr. Camp said. Comics typically try to identify with the “everyman,” while conservatives tend to favor big business, Mr. Camp said, which is a turnoff to the average comedy club habitue.
All bets are off, though, should the president have an intern malfunction or similar scandal. If that happens, right-wing comics will “be popping up everywhere,” he said.
Mr. Beck said society needs comedians to skewer those in power, no matter the party affiliation.
“We deflate everybody. As a guy who’s been deflated lately, it keeps you in check,” Mr. Beck said. “Whoever the president is, they have to know that they’re not a king.”