Backstory: Serious business of jokes in politics
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Gerald Ford helped defuse his image as a presidential klutz - relentlessly mocked on late-night shows - with a single borscht-belt move. When he got up to give his speech at the 1976 banquet of the Radio-Television Correspondents Association, he made sure to take the tablecloth with him, sending dishes, glasses, and silverware tumbling to the floor. Then, still appearing oblivious, he sprayed 100 pages of a speech down the front of the lectern. By the time he got to his first line, acknowledging his comic nemesis Chevy Chase as a "very very funny suburb," the audience was howling.Skip to next paragraph
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President Clinton took harbor in the port of self-deprecating humor after a rough first 100 days in office. From federal raids in Waco, Texas, to gays in the military and a $200 haircut on the L.A. tarmac, things had not gone well. The Clinton press team couldn't acknowledge it, but a joke at the White House Correspondents' Dinner did. "I don't think I'm doing that badly," Clinton deadpanned. "After his first 100 days in office, William Henry Harrison had already been dead for 68 days!"
"The only safe humor for a politician is self-deprecating," says Liz Carpenter, who headed the first White House "humor group" for President Johnson.
For those without natural comedic gifts, humor can be taught or bought. But some politicians take pride in their inner Jay Leno. "I don't pay for jokes," says Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania. "I can't afford to pay for all the legal advice I need, and, besides, there's too much good material all around here."
Other politicians simply don't do funny. "Bad timing," says Don Stewart, a spokesman for Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, explaining why his boss avoids such appearances, particularly the late-night shows. "Even if you are funny, the risk-reward ratio of doing a funny show is not in most person's favor," he adds. "If you're not funny, you bomb or voters want to know, 'what is the senator doing on a goof-off show?' "
Still, late night television can offer a big payoff for politicians. Candidate Bill Clinton scored a hit with his saxophone on the "Arsenio Hall Show." But when Richard Nixon uttered the familiar "sock it to me" line on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" in the 1968 presidential campaign, many thought he came off as odd.
Today the edgier comic style of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" or "Real Time with Bill Maher" pose special risks for Washington officials: It's easy to look a step too slow.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, a leading budget hawk, was at first reluctant to do an interview with the Daily Show's Rob Corddry, but then agreed in part "to impress my 17-year-old son," he says. He thought the hour-long shoot had gone well, until he saw the edited version on TV. The funny bits about pork spending had been cut. By the last question - did he use federal funds to dye his (blond) hair? No, he said, "It's the Arizona sun" - it was clear that the brunt of the joke was him.
"You have got to be a brave politician to go on with Jon Stewart," says Landon Parvin, an in-demand GOP humor writer. "Unless you're a natural at that, it's a big risk."
"I have been told I was on the road to hell, but I had no idea it was just a mile down the road with a dome on it."
- Abraham Lincoln on Congress.
"I don't think I'm doing that badly. After his first 100 days in office, William Henry Harrison had already been dead for 68 days."
- Bill Clinton on his rocky start in office.
"I will not exploit, for political purposes, the youth and inexperience of my opponent."
- Ronald Reagan to Walter Mondale in a debate, trying to defuse the age issue.
"The only person more overhyped than me is you."
- Barack Obama to Jon Stewart, deflecting a question about the Illinois senator's superstar reputation.