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Obama the Morbid Jokester

Political Humor Takes a Serious Turn

Millennial Athwart

It’s almost caricatural now to claim that politics these days transcends caricature. The absurdities that regularly come out of Trump’s mouth—and Cruz’s, Clinton’s, and Sanders’ at times—don’t need parody, as so many have pointed out. The examples are self-evident: Tina Fey’s impression of Sarah Palin’s surreal endorsement of Trump was tamer than the original. The implausible inanity that “Veep” is premised upon is all too plausible. It was unclear whether Donald Trump was the butt of his SNL appearance or we were.

How can we exaggerate, and therefore satirize, an election cycle with a man who thinks “it really doesn’t matter what the media write as long as you’ve got a young, and beautiful piece of ass”?

But political satire still is necessary—if not to intoxicate us with improbable fantasy, then to sober us up to our unlikely reality. Every talk-show impression of The Donald and every Onion article scathing Cruz or Hillary is too similar to real life for it to serve no greater purpose than providing a quick laugh. There is solemn truth to a popular meme circulating the web this year: We used to laugh at comedians, and listen to politicians. Now we laugh at politicians and listen to comedians.

This year, we listened to John Oliver, Amy Schumer, and Samantha Bee as they angrily implored Americans to wake up, delivering fiery torrent after torrent at the current state of our nation’s politics.

And last week, we saw this acerbic, mission-oriented brand of political humor on a different, more powerful stage—the 2016 White House Correspondents Dinner, an event for Washington’s most high-minded to politely indulge the most powerful man in the free world as he delivers harmless one-liners and self-deprecating punchlines.

But President Obama had a different plan in mind for his final dinner: to use absurd means to call attention to the absurdity of the world. Last week, we saw a president disenchanted with the descent of his nation and intelligent enough to use comedy as a tool to make this anger clear.

A far cry from Reagan joking about his age at the 1988 dinner, this year Obama didn’t pull any punches, and these punches were not aimed at himself. An uppercut at corrupt media establishments:"'Spotlight' is... a movie about investigative journalists with the resources and the autonomy to chase down the truth and hold the powerful accountable. Best fantasy film since 'Star Wars.'” A hook at Republican congressmen: "In just six short months, I will be officially a lame duck...and Republican leaders won’t take my phone calls. And this is going to take some getting used to.” And a fatal sucker punch at the whole situation: "Eight years ago, I said it was time to change the tone of our politics. In hindsight, I clearly should have been more specific.”

Obama’s jokes have had edge in the past—“Let’s face it, Fox, you’ll miss me when I’m gone. It will be harder to convince the American people that Hillary was born in Kenya,” he said at last year’s dinner. But never before have they had such a sense of urgency. Obama seems to be doing what Trevor Noah or John Oliver do every week—making us laugh, yes, but to the end that we realize that this humor masks a painfully unfunny reality. Like any good comedian, Obama ended his roast with a mic drop—a universally recognized symbol of odium and disappointment, and a sign that he is self-aware that this was no ordinary Washington black tie affair.

Somewhere between the obligatory self-loathing and lovable dad jokes is a morbid sense of humor in our president—the type of humor that dominated this election cycle and will likely continue to gain traction as long as we as a nation maintain this level of political dysfunction. “The end of the republic never looked better,” Obama joked at the beginning of his roast, a line that cued rapturous applause and laughter in the audience. The real punchline, though, was that he was not kidding.


Shubhankar Chhokra ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @shubchhokra.

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