Comedians slow to take jabs at Obama, but gloves are off now

Obama’s laid-back demeanor, and race, make him a tough mark. But comedians are starting to find ways to poke the president.

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    President Obama has been lampooned of late after an unusually long period of immunity for a national political figure.
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Not too long after the Obama inauguration, comedian Bill Maher got groans from his audience when he called President Obama "a black cat in the White House." A few months later, he got a few chuckles with the line: "Everything was going well for the beer summit until [white] officer Crowley drove up to the White House, got out, and tossed Obama the keys...."

But the day Mr. Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, Mr. Maher got a hearty laugh when he said Obama would attend the ceremony in Oslo, "if he's not too busy with the two wars he's conducting."

It's been a long time coming, say comedians and political scientists. Nine months after the presidential inauguration, comedians are finally cracking jokes about Obama – and audiences are laughing.

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"Usually, presidents and national candidates make easy targets," says Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political communication at George Mason University in Washington. "With the womanizing Bill Clinton, the wooden Al Gore, the Hamlet-style indecisiveness of John Kerry, the inexperienced George W. Bush, the clueless Sarah Palin, and the Machiavellian Dick Cheney, the jokes practically write themselves."

But Obama, with his laid-back demeanor and studied coolness, has been a tough mark. "He just doesn't lend himself to ridicule as easily as did his predecessors," says Mr. Farnsworth. "In addition, comics have worried that any humor directed at Obama could have been seen as having racial overtones. So they have been cautious, and cautious comedians tend not to be all that funny."

The comic tide may be turning. "Saturday Night Live" (SNL) recently opened with a sketch starring Fred Armisen as President Obama addressing the nation from the Oval Office.

"There are those on the right who are angry. They think that I am turning this great country into something that resembles the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany," said Mr. Armisen, mimicking Obama's staccato delivery. "But that is just not the case. Because when you look at my record, it's very clear what I've done so far ... and that is nothing. Nada."

Armisen then went over a report card on Obama's campaign promises from healthcare reform to closing Guantánamo Bay prison. "Looking at this [report card,]" said Armisen/Obama, "I'm seeing two large accomplishments: Jack and Squat."

The "SNL" skit was a turning point, says Josh Spector, Comedy.com's senior vice president of marketing and content, adding that he expects more comedy aimed at Obama the man.

"We've seen comedy get more personal towards Obama. At first it was issue-oriented – bank bailout, GM bankruptcy, and TARP funds – but now it's more about him as the issues get bigger and harder to solve."

If the gloves are coming off now, comedians say, it's partly because Obama's ratings have stumbled enough to open up chinks in his armor.

"Enough time has passed for Obama to accrue a record of what he has and hasn't done," says D. Lemon, a black comedian based in New York. He adds, "Black comics have always considered him fair game, but it was from a place of love and pride. We never had to deal with the ‘is this racist?' question because [the president] was finally one of our own."

The ability to mock the president isn't always just about entertainment. Comedy captures the zeitgeist of a culture, but it can also help shape it, says Matthew Kerbel, a political scientist at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. Some say Tina Fey's lampooning of Sarah Palin as inarticulate and feckless on "SNL" contributed to the Republican ticket's slide in last year's elections.

Comic sketches such as those on "SNL" have more power today because they live in cyberspace forever, adds Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

"Back when Chevy Chase made Gerald Ford into a bumbling idiot, you either saw it on TV or you read about it. But it didn't play forever. Now people send these links to all their friends and it has a whole new, secondary life that people talk about more."

The Internet afterlife of political comedy has another effect: helping form the opinions of those who pay little attention to traditional news sources, especially the under-35 generation. "Comedy is now leading mainstream news sources," says Comedy.com's Mr. Spector, "and people who don't know what they think about the president are having their opinions driven by the comedy bits."

The danger, says Ms. Jeffe, is that people lose sight of what comedians actually do – namely, work for a laugh. "Shows like ‘SNL' are perceived to be part of the liberal media establishment, so when they use the president to get a laugh, it's perceived as some sort of betrayal," she notes.

Comedians are just looking for a comic hook, agrees Anthony Jeselnik, a writer on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon."

But, he adds, it's a balancing act with a leader many hope will be an agent for change. "People really do want Obama to be the real deal, and they're holding out hope for his success over politics as usual," says Mr. Jeselnik. "If the audience laughed at comedians calling Obama a child molester, we would call Obama a child molester. We're not holding back, but we can only give what the audience will accept."

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