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Let’s Learn to Laugh About Obama

The New Yorker cover controversy and Obama's humorless reaction show that America has forgotten how to laugh.

by
Elizabeth Scalia

Bio

July 19, 2008 - 12:05 am

Seriousness is not a virtue … because it is the easiest thing to do. … For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity. — G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Why did Obama cross the road? To get to the right of John McCain!

I did it. I made a joke about Barack Obama.

They said it was impossible. Professional comedy writers told the New York Times that it was not possible to write jokes about Barack Obama, because, as one writer explained, “The thing is, he’s not buffoonish in any way.”

Generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal. — Barack Obama, June 2, 2008

C’mon now, that is nearly buffoonish megalomania, right there. If a comedy writer can’t find satirical possibilities in that, he’s just not looking. And he’s also doing Obama no favors by holding him exempt from ridicule. Suffering ridicule is part of the job of being president; it comes with the nuclear football, and quite possibly that is why. The American presidency is already a grave and heavy office; without humorous chucking back and forth — between the president and the press or between him and the satirists — it would seem unbearably ponderous and remote, inaccessible to the citizenry, and inexpressibly lonely for the president.

The unwillingness to crack jokes about Obama seems to be making Americans — who understand in our egalitarian way that everyone is a buffoon sometimes — a little uncomfortable. “If Obama gets elected and there is nothing funny about him, it won’t be the economy that’s depressed. It will be the rest of us. May we mock, Obama?” asks Maureen Dowd.

It’s an important question because freely mocking our leadership is a deep-seated part of American culture, the puckish and playful indicator of the health of both our First Amendment and our national psyche. A president — and a nation — that can manage good-natured and self-deprecating laughter is in pretty good shape.

“Good-natured” is the operative word. Lately humor in America has almost outsmarted itself, becoming too ironic by half — so much so that this week the New Yorker caused something of a brouhaha by printing a satirical cover of Senator and Mrs. Obama so heavy with irony that the Obama campaign, and many in the press, took to the airways to explain it. In an effort spanning three news cycles, ardent reporters and Democrats reassured the blue states that the magazine cover was not labeling Obama a radical Muslim and his wife a militant proponent of black liberation theology; it was making fun of people who think those things! Then — not exactly in one syllable words, but very nearly — some, like Andrea Mitchell, explained the thing to the unsophisticated rubes in the red states: “This. Is. What. You. Think. And. We. Are. Laughing. At. You. Get. It. Cornpones?”

In fairness, the reason some thought the cartoon would be misconstrued was that it was unfinished satire. The artist, Barry Blitt, simply did not go far enough; he should have included a “Honk if you love jihad” bumper sticker on the back of Obama’s caftan, had Fidel Castro sitting nearby, and displayed a thermostat set to either “very cold in winter” or “sweaty in summer.” Satire is meant to be broad but — for whatever reason, perhaps precisely because we cannot gauge Obama’s sense of humor — the artist pulled his punch. In so doing, he ended up confusing and infuriating the Left and amusing the Right, who not only got the insult but found it particularly funny that, in their tortured explanations, the Left gave more and more exposure to those extreme ideas. Oh, irony!

Several days into the breathless tangle, Sen. Obama finally made a clear statement to Larry King, in which he attempted to play down the cartoon while reiterating the message: “I’ve seen and heard worse,” he said. “I do think that in attempting to satirize something, they probably fueled some misconceptions about me instead. But that was their editorial judgment.”

Oh, brother. As Daffy Duck might say, “What a way to run a railroad!” Obama’s earnest and boring response was exactly wrong. If he truly believed that the satirical edge was missing — and thus misleading — he should have himself made the content plain with a genial laugh and a concurrence: “Wait,” Obama could have said, “where’s my fake birth certificate hanging on the wall? Why doesn’t my wife have a Jackie Kennedy pillbox hat on her head? He left out my hammer and sickle!”

When Ronald Reagan was asked a question about age and the presidency — a question meant to highlight his advanced years — he quickly quipped, “I’m not going to hold my opponent’s youth against him.” The issue was dead from that point on.

Earnestness is all well and good, but a light touch and a shared laugh can reassure the nation that the bad times are endurable, the good times are just ahead, and the president has his wits about him and his eye on that football.

Al Gore and John Kerry were unacquainted with self-deprecating humor and they lost to a Texan who could make fun of himself. Obama — if he is smart — will heed history and lighten up, before he falls from a glorious height and lands with a very cartoon-like thud. No one wants to watch him walk away with his head between his feet.

Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer to First Things Magazine and the blogger known as The Anchoress.
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