Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Not Funny

Late-night comics have a tough time making fun of Barack Obama.

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.

At least not to white comics and white audiences.

Things might be somewhat different if even one late-night host was black. Black comics are not having any trouble joking about Mr. Obama, said David Alan Grier, a comedian who, starting in October, will have a satirical news magazine show on Comedy Central, “Chocolate News.”

“I tell jokes on stage about him,” Mr. Grier said, reciting a few that would not ever get onto a network late-night show (nor into this newspaper).

But he said of the late-night hosts, “Those guys really can’t go there. It’s just like the gay comic can do gay material. It comes with the territory.” Still, he said, he has no sympathy for the hosts. “No way. They’ve had 200 years of presidential jokes. It’s our time.”

Jimmy Kimmel, the host of the ABC late-night talk show “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” said of Mr. Obama, “There’s a weird reverse racism going on. You can’t joke about him because he’s half-white. It’s silly. I think it’s more a problem because he’s so polished, he doesn’t seem to have any flaws.”

Mr. Maher said that being sensitive to Mr. Obama was in no way interfering with his commentary, though on HBO he has more freedom about content than other comedians. “There’s been this question about whether he’s black enough,” Mr. Maher said. “I have this joke: What does he have to do? Dunk? He bowled a 37 — to me, that’s black enough.”

What’s ironic is that the person who seems to be capable of laughing at Barack Obama the most is Barack Obama.

I have a feeling that if Mr. Obama wins the election, by the time we get to the inauguration, the comics will have found their voices. Just a hunch. I also have the feeling that if The New Yorker had done a satirical cover on John and Cindy McCain, the outrage yesterday wouldn’t have seemed to be so forced. I think the blogospheric reaction took their cue from the Obama campaign, and if they — the campaign — had laughed it off or said something along the lines of “Hey, now we’re really getting our message out!” this would have been a one-day story. But instead they called it “tasteless,” thus giving everyone out there permission to follow suit and show that they were even more outraged than the next guy. (Meanwhile, the righties, who have a basic problem with satire and irony because they do it unintentionally, are framing The New Yorker cover as a campaign poster. Talk about not getting it….)

Take it from someone who has studied humor: laughter comes best when it comes naturally, not when it’s cued up and forced out.