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No, We Can’t (Laugh)!

With Obama as president, whither comedy?

By Alexandra A. Petri, None

Obama isn’t funny. There, I said it.

A fact that has been the elephant, or rather, donkey, in the room for the entire campaign has finally reared its ugly head. Comics across America have quietly despaired. From The Onion to campus-based ventures like On Harvard Time or Satire V, those who derive their livelihood from poking fun at power quail when they ponder the next four years. “You have to wait for all the dust to settle and look for patterns and things to joke about,” said the head writer of Late Night with Conan O’Brien, when asked about his plans for making fun of the President-Elect. Regardless of your political leanings, the prospect of spending four years trying to lampoon a President whose response to “Boxers or briefs?” is “I don’t answer those humiliating questions,” is not inviting. Making fun of Obama is a serious challenge. He doesn’t mispronounce his words; he shows no excessive interest in interns; he once gave his wife a fist-bump, but it wasn’t a big deal. He spends most of his time being dignified and looking competent, neither of which are immediately hilarious attributes.

The Bush years weren’t splendid times for many people—economic turmoil, wars, that incident with the pretzel—but they were comedy gold. Not since Dan Quayle has America had such a prominently placed source of continual gaffes. Back during the 2000 campaign, when people based their presidential choices on whimsical criteria like “Someone I’d Like To Have A Beer With” or “I Couldn’t Figure Out How the Ballot Worked,” everyone laughed incredulously at the slow but steady stream of “Bushisms.” Little did we know that gems like “I know how hard it is to put food on your family” were only the beginning of an eight-year laugh riot! But after eight years of State of the Union addresses where nuclear was pronounced as an arbitrary sequence of three syllables, we have become accustomed to seeing the presidential office as part-king, part-jester. The idea of the United States President as a somewhat lovable buffoon remains firmly ensconced in the public mind, both at home and abroad.

And this makes Obama’s job harder. In our entertainment-saturated age, when—as pundits are fond of repeating—the winner of American Idol gets as much attention as the winner of the presidential election, personality counts for a great deal. Back in the Colonial era when everyone was dignified, a sense of humor in a major public figure was viewed as something along the lines of a congenital defect. George Washington didn’t have to make us laugh; he just had to establish precedents and avoid chopping down more cherry trees than he could possibly help. But somewhere along the line, Americans began expecting their Presidents to do more than just govern. They also had to make us laugh. As long as there have been Republican presidents, they’ve been kind of funny. Lincoln was a veritable wellspring of quips and anecdotes; Taft at least looked jolly; Reagan was a laugh-a-minute, from Star Wars missile defense systems to his side-splitting trickle-down economics. Democrats, by contrast, have been a soberer lot. Wilson? Roosevelt? Gore? As the “Green is the New Crimson” address reinforced, a Gore administration wouldn’t have been funny at all. It would just have been deeply concerned about serious issues all the time.

For those worried about the lack of humor in the oval office, McCain’s vice-presidential pick was a breath of fresh air. Indeed, Sarah Palin’s greatest contribution to the campaign was her evident willingness to take up the Bush comedy mantle. Her incoherent strings of folksy wisdom fell into the laps of impressionists and writers like a godsend. A President Palin would have been everything President Bush was and then some—pregnant teenagers with crazy names! Hunting mishaps! Negligible foreign policy experience! And when American voters said “no” to McCain, they destroyed all remaining possibility of a President who would have hilarious chats with Canadian radio pranksters.

I don’t think the magnitude of this change has registered with Americans yet. All the young voters who flocked to Obama in droves grew up watching The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. We are accustomed to cutting political satire that reveals the emperor is wearing no clothes. As far back as we can remember, the Presidency was a source of jokes, from those crazy complications with Monica to the time Dick Cheney actually shot that guy. All that is over now.

Instead of a President who waves at Stevie Wonder, says things like, “Awesome speech” to the Pope, and calls the Italian Prime Minister “Amigo,” we will have a president who draws crowds of thousands to hear him deliver coherent speeches in which he pronounces the word “nuclear” as God intended it to be pronounced. But before we mope from used bookstore to used bookstore, picking up dog-eared copies of “Bushisms: Volume Eight” and trying to relive old times, let’s take comfort. Sure, we may not be laughing at the President of the United States. But neither is anyone else. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Alexandra A. Petri ’10, a classics and English concentrator, lives in Eliot House.

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