Is it safe to make Obama jokes yet?
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing over the past few days about whether comedy will suffer under an Obama presidency because comics (especially the all-white corps of late-night hosts) will feel squeamish making jokes about the new president. I find such talk irksome; it assumes that the president-elect lacks the capacity to make or enjoy jokes at his own expense (clearly not true, given his recent remark that his daughters’ new puppy should be “a mutt, like me“), and that his presidency will usher in an era of no-fun-allowed political correctness in which dissenting voices will be silenced. I think fears of comedic censorship (or self-censorship) are overblown and unrealistic, but it will be tricky to make Obama jokes, though maybe not for the reasons the hand-wringers expect.
Granted, we’ve not heard a lot of Obama jokes so far; the ones floating around since the election, as this Gawker post points out, have mostly been about assassination fears. (Of course, that’s more a joke about pervasive American racial paranoia than about Obama specifically; in fact, Eddie Murphy was making similar jokes about Jesse Jackson 25 years ago, and Gawker has found the NSFW clip to prove it.) The reason, however, isn’t political correctness but rather the difficulty of finding something in Obama himself to make fun of. He hasn’t done anything yet, so he can’t be lampooned for his gaffes in office, and he hasn’t revealed the personal idiosyncracies that would be easy for comics to caricature. (Poor Fred Armisen on Saturday Night Live, pictured, has successfully mimicked some of Obama’s oratorical tics, but beyond that, his Obama has been the straight man in sketches about other politicians with traits that are easier to ridicule.) If there’s one positive effect that an Obama presidency will have on comedy, as Gawker suggests, it’s that it’ll force comics to be more creative and clever in order to find something spoof-worthy about Obama; they won’t be able to rely, as they have for the past 30 years, on cheap and easy jokes about, say, Reagan’s dottiness or Clinton’s libido or W.’s dimwittedness.
I’m not worried that comedians will shrink from the challenge. If Denis Leary can make jokes about autism, or Sarah Silverman can make jokes about any taboo subject she can think of, do you really think they’re going to avoid taking on the new president? Comedy is usually about attacking the powerful rather than the underdog (which is what Obama was until the last few weeks of the campaign), but as D.L. Hughley points out to the Associated Press, Obama is now the most powerful man on the planet; which comic could resist that target? Besides, as Tracy Morgan tells the New York Times, white comics who avoid riffing on the president risk seeming irrelevant. They should feel free to joke about Obama, Morgan says — but the jokes had better be funny.
Don’t forget, also, that The Daily Show, despite its liberal bent, is about making fun of the media as well as politicians; as long as TV news continues to do a shoddy and superficial job covering things that matter, Jon Stewart will have plenty to mock. His show is also about catching politicians when they contradict themselves. As soon as President Obama does something hypocritical or disappointing (that is, as soon as he proves himself as human and fallible as any other politician), the Daily Show crew will be there to call him on it.
Besides, if all else fails, as Jay Leno notes, there’s always Joe Biden.