P ERHAPS ONLY IN THE ANNALS OF POLITICAL COMEDY DOES MICHAEL DUKAKIS LOOM AS A LARGER -THAN- LIFE FIGURE. RENOWNED AMONG JOKE WRITERS AS THE LEAST INTENTIONALLY FUNNY POLITICIAN IN MEMORY, he offers an object lesson in the danger of ignoring one’s public persona. Dukakis really believed that humor had little relevance to politics . Mark Katz, whose new memoir, Clinton & Me, chronicles his time as a political humorist, began by writing jokes for Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign—a job, he says, that was anal ogous to being staff photographer for The Wall Street Journal . Recent political history offers a procession of other humorless automatons who crashed at least in part because voters deemed them too dull, stiff or creepy: Phil Gramm, Steve Forbes, Al Core, and Gray Davis come to mind.
Actual political humor —that is, humor delivered by politicians ---- is tricky owing not just to politicians natural handicaps but also to the very delicate matter of what can and cannot be said. For although much of what’s funny derives from its unexpectedness, there is always the risk of offending key constituencies.
“The biggest challenge in writing humor says Kenneth Baer, a former speechwriter for Gore, “is, everything that’s very funny, you can’t make a joke about. Scandals, sex, sleaze—it’s all off limits’ In the words of the Gridiron Club, which has hosted Presidents since Benjamin Harrison, humor should “singe but not burn”.
For politicians to succeed, humor must also be carefully calibrated to humanize them, which means that it must almost always be self-deprecating. “Humor has to flow upward,” Jon Macks explains. It’s okay to make fun of ‘your boss, but if you’re the guy on top, its no t okay to make jokes about people beneath you, because you look mean— which means your jokes have to come at your very own expense. John Edwards, needled for his boyish good looks, has succeeded with this (I know what you’re thinking; He’s better-looking in person.”) as President, Ceorge W. Bush, for whom self~deprecation is hardly au imp1uiise, has also submitted to necessity (quoting Garrison Keillor’s crack that “George Bush’s lips are where words go to die”).
Yet some of the most talented politicians----most famously, the Clinton’s---- bridle — at bing the target of their owii jokes, to the frustration of Katz and the assortment of other comedy writers who support them. (In fairness, the Clintons may believe that enough jokes come at their expense already: a stuidy by the Center for Media and Public determined that over a ten-year period encompassing all of his presidency, Bill Clinton was the subject of 3,722 jokes on the Tonight Show alone, more than any other figure
Kerry ‘s penchant for oratory and statesmanlike posturing would seem to make him Dukakis’s heir apparent. Though he has had material provided to him by a former writer for the comedian Bill Matter, and now draws on a phalanx of sitcom writers, little evidence of their handiwork has manifested itself. The trouble with Mr. Kerry is that the road to the White House runs through the gauntlet of late— night shows, which represents au opportunity-----If you re going to beat back the charge that you’re aloof, here’s the perfect venue to do it.”Baer says—but also a risk.
During thc primaries Kerry’s lack of humor didn’t hurt him; his great vaunted “.electability” was enough to draw the support of Democrats eager to depose President Bush. But now he faces the considerable task of wooing the center–voters who by definition are not slavering to remove Bush—and this means displaying the warm and funny side that has assiduously hidden throughout his public career.
T HE TASK OF JOLTING LIFE INTO KERRY with anything less than a defibrillator will fall to his ghost writers. In order to better understand the difficulties he faces, I set out to experience them for myself . Running for President was out of the question. But as a political reporter, I’m occasionally expected to appear on television and speak knowledgeably about current events with out being a bore—a reasonable enough approximation.. And just as Kerry seeks to impress specific constituencies during his appearances (undecideds, independents, disillusioned Republicans), I seek to impress important constituencies of my own (college budies, ex-girlfriends, potential employers). So, like Kerry, I enlisted the help of a staff writer for HBO’s Real lime with Bill Maher----in niy case Jay Jarocht, an old friend who tor several weeks last year volunteered to write material for me each time I was to be a guest.
If my experience is any indication, there is hope for even someone as humor— impaired as Kerry. Having one’s own comedy writer is like taking a performance-enhancing drug: it provides that which nature has not. When MSNBC booked me to debate what was then still an open question—whether weapons of mass destruction would lie found in Iraq— I was able to point out that it was starting to look like Al Capone’s vault over there,” reducing the show ‘s host, Pat Buchanan, to giggles . Later, when Donald Rumsfeld was at a low point over chaos in Iraq, I came supplied with the line “The only guy less popular at the moment is the judge who struck down the telemarketers , ‘Do Not Call’ list. Same effect. And to poke fun at Kerry’s habit of shanieiessly invoking his Vietnam service at every opportunity, when discussions turned to his recent duck— hunting trip, my lines called for me to say, “Every time Kerry shoots a duck, he yells, ‘Medic!’”
The effect was immediate and unmistakable. After my initial MSNBC appearance, the producer emerged from her control room to introduce herself and insist that I return . I did so the following week and once again my material slayed. Invitations to appear on this show and others began to pick tip—a result I can credit only to my professional help. Having a comedy writer is a transforma-tive experience, and not just in front of the camera. Being armed with a steady supply of funny lues imparts a suffusive confidence with wide—ranging effècts on ones personality ----which I imagine it must be like for a bald person suddenly to don a particularly convincing toupee.
Whether Kerry can pull it off remains to be seen. Last November, 2003, he made a disastrous appearance on The Tonight Show, where he was the butt of jokes by a sock puppet named Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. But history suggests that cven the worst cases can succeed. Richard Nixon’s political career was thought be to destroyed by his tirade against the media in 1962, after he was defeated for governor of California. His famous Laugh-In appearance six-years later was part of an image-softening campaign to introduce “the new Nixon” during his 1968 presidential run. In hindsight this sounds like a bad joke. But Nixon won the presidency, at least in part because he had learned how to deliver a good one.
Joshua Green is a senior editor of
The Atlantic and a contributing
editor of The Washington Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly
May 2004. (Pgs. 37-38)
Six years later.....
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