- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008


That question, which dogged TV humorists throughout the presidential race, has gained new urgency now that Barack Obama is headed for the White House. His victory last week signaled imminent hardship for comics who lampoon political leaders for a living. The laugh-a-minute 2008 campaign is history, and soon there will be no President Bush to kick around in comedy sketches or talk-show monologues.

Adding to the jesters’ plight: Mr. Obama will be sworn in soon as the next punch line in chief.

Here’s a man who inspires admiration, excitement or, maybe, suspicion. What he doesn’t inspire (in any measurable quantity, so far) are cheap laughs.

“A dignified, thoughtful, charismatic, smart man who doesn’t run at the mouth,” sums up Craig Ferguson, host of CBS’ “Late Late Show,” in the aftermath of eight go-go Bush years for comics. “Is it a challenge to our creative juices to find something funny about Obama? Yes!”

Right after the election, some TV wags were even waxing nostalgic on the air, however tongue-in-cheek.

On Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart said he was already missing the Bush administration - and his own George W. Bush impression, which served him so well at the anchor desk.

“As a comedian,” NBC’s Jay Leno echoed to his “Tonight Show” audience, “I’m going to miss President Bush. Barack Obama is not easy to do jokes about. He doesn’t give you a lot to go on. See, this is why God gave us [Vice President-elect] Joe Biden.

“When one door closes, another one opens up.”

True, as a six-term U.S. senator and lately as Mr. Obama’s running mate, Mr. Biden has cemented his reputation for blurting out remarks before they’re vetted by his brain. (Item: Mr. Biden declared that “Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television” to address the nation when the stock market crashed in October 1929 - but Herbert Hoover was president then and TV was in its early stages.)

“He’s a little more gregarious, runs around and slaps people on the back; he’s cheery-looking,” says Mr. Ferguson, who agrees that Mr. Biden is the comics’ consolation prize. “You can at least put him in a sketch.”

Comic Bill Maher, host of HBO’s “Real Time,” describes himself as “a policy guy who tries to stick more to what politicians do than who they are.”

That doesn’t mean he’s immune to the problem Mr. Obama poses.

“It’s always better if the president is stupid or fat or cheating on his wife or angry or a phony. This guy is none of those things. And that,” Mr. Maher says with a laugh, “is really unfair.

“But, c’mon, on balance, aren’t we all happier that we have somebody who isn’t such an easy target? I mean, comedians have had it really easy for the last eight years.”

Humor often relies on stereotypes and caricature, but comics haven’t yet sussed out how to caricature Mr. Obama, and so far, he has defied any categorical stereotypes - even those associated with black men.

Magician-comedian Penn Jillette recalled how “there have been jokes about Bush that had nothing to do with him being stupid or wrong - just about his being from Texas, since he has a slight Texas accent.

“But if you wanted to do black jokes about Obama, none of them are applicable. It’s as if he were from Texas but without the Texas accent.”

Mr. Jillette ventured an idea for putting Mr. Obama in the comic cross hairs: Crack wise about his notion “that government can solve a lot of the problems that were previously left to the individual. I would be talking about the audacity of government giving people that kind of hope.”

Mr. Ferguson proposed poking fun at Mr. Obama’s “deification” by his more fervent supporters. It’s no long-term solution for comedians, but it might buy them some time.

Still, Mr. Obama’s do-no-wrong aura is sure to be short-lived, as Americans observe him no longer full tilt on the campaign trail but instead slogging through each presidential workday.

“In time, that will happen,” says “Saturday Night Live” cast member Fred Armisen, who in February scored the show’s plum role impersonating the president-elect - “in time, not just with me, as we see more and more of him.”

As comedians search for Mr. Obama’s laughs-generating sweet spot, they should fight the urge to go easy on him out of misconceived racial sensitivity, says D.L. Hughley.

“If you call yourself a comic, you can’t excuse the most powerful man in the world,” says Mr. Hughley, who is black and host of “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News” on CNN. “He is the most powerful man on the face of the planet. He is the Man!”

While many changes await an Obama presidency that will serve the cause of humor, much about the comedy landscape will be the same, as Mr. Hughley was reminded as he headed home on election night.

“I had watched it in Harlem,” he says. “I was elated, smiling from ear to ear, excited that the country I love now decided that they love people like me back, and in a major way. And I flagged a cab. And that cab drove right by me. Then I tried to flag another one, and it drove right by.”

Recalling the experience, he couldn’t help laughing that a black man couldn’t get a cab to stop in Obama’s America. Until comics find the key to the funny in Mr. Obama, they’ll have plenty else to inspire their jokes.

AP entertainment writer Jake Coyle contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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