Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a political comedian and frequent commentator on various TV networks including CNN. He is the editor of the politics blog The Dean’s Report and co-director of the upcoming documentary “The Muslims Are Coming!” Follow him on Twitter @deanofcomedy.
Dean Obeidallah says Obama uses jokes like many comedians do: as weapons
He says presidents often make self-deprecating jokes, but Obama's can be barbed, too
He says Obama has aimed at Trump, Romney, Damon like a comic leveling a heckler
Obeidallah: Style draws from Jon Stewart, which educates, eviscerates
Barack Obama would make a great stand-up comic, not because he’s the funniest president ever but because he uses jokes the same way many of us comedians do: as a weapon.
Traditionally, the (intentionally) funny lines by our presidents have had one thing in common: They were self-deprecating. Sure, some presidents have used jokes to take jabs at their opponents, but not to the extent of Obama.
During his tenure, he has increasingly unleashed biting comedic barbs against his critics and political adversaries. These jokes are intended to do more than simply entertain you. They have an agenda.
Obama’s humor is often delivered the way a comedian dealing with a heckler would do it. He tries to undermine his opponents with it and get the crowd – in this case the public – on his side. I can assure you that having a crowd laugh at your critic/heckler is not only effective in dominating them, it’s also very satisfying.
Let’s look at some of the more typical self-deprecating jokes made by presidents at past White House Correspondents’ Dinners, where press and president unleash their biting wits on one another. In 1988, Ronald Reagan joked about his advanced age by commenting that his staff had claimed that “preparing me for a press conference was like reinventing the wheel. Not true. I was around when the wheel was invented, and it was easier.”
President Clinton, at the 2000 Correspondents’ Dinner, mentioned that he was a fan of that night’s comedian, Jay Leno: “Because, together, we give hope to gray-haired, chunky baby boomers everywhere.”
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And then there was President George W. Bush. There are no words to describe my gratitude for all the material he provided comedians. But he could also be intentionally funny at his own expense.
At the 2001 Correspondents’ Dinner, Bush took out a book written about his verbal gaffes and reviewed them with the audience. One of the funniest moments was regarding his famous grammatically incorrect line “Rarely is the question asked: ‘Is our children learning?’ ” Bush then comically explained, “If they would read it closely, they would see I’m using the transitive plural tense, so the word ‘is’ are correct.”
Now, let’s look at Obama. Yes, he has often used self-deprecating humor.
For example, at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he joked, “Some people now suggest that I’m too professorial. And I’d like to address that head-on by assigning all of you some reading that will help you draw your own conclusions.”
But here’s where Obama has increasingly taken presidential comedy to a new place. At that same event, Obama took on two critics point-blank, using cutting humor. The first was the thin-skinned Donald Trump, who at that time was considering running for president against Obama in 2012.
Obama made three sharply barbed jokes at Trump’s expense. One was about how trivial Trump’s decisions on “The Apprentice” were when compared with that of the POTUS. The second ridiculed Trump for what he would allegedly do to the White House if he won: turn it into a garish-looking hotel and spa.
And Obama mocked Trump’s obsession with the “birther” issue by joking that, next, “The Donald” would focus on topics like “Did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”
Obama then took on actor Matt Damon, who had been publicly critical of the president. Obama quipped, “Matt Damon said he was disappointed in my performance. Well, Matt, I just saw ‘The Adjustment Bureau,’ so right back atcha, buddy.”
At the 2012 Correspondents’ Dinner, Obama took on his then-opponent Mitt Romney: “I guess Gov. Romney is feeling pretty good about things, because he took a few hours off the other day to see ‘The Hunger Games.’ … It’s a movie about people who court wealthy sponsors and then brutally savage each other until only one contestant is left standing. I’m sure this was a really good change of pace for him.”
And then at the Alfred E. Smith Dinner in New York a few weeks before the most recent presidential election, Obama mocked Romney again: “Earlier today, I went shopping at some stores in Midtown. I understand Gov. Romney went shopping for some stores in Midtown.”
And we even saw it on display again this week when Obama joked with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he was happy to be in the Middle East because it’s, “good to get away from Congress.” Clearly, Republican House Speaker John Boehner understood who Obama was targeting with this joke, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper, “I’d rather be heckled than ignored.”
You can dismiss these as simply jokes, but then you aren’t grasping how political comedy works. These jokes are funny but also have a message embedded within. For example, the jokes about Romney intentionally furthered the image Obama wanted to paint of Mitt, namely that he was very wealthy and out of touch with the average person.
The change in presidential humor, I believe, can be traced to the influence of “The Daily Show.” Since 1999, Jon Stewart has redefined political comedy, using it to entertain, educate and eviscerate. Obama and his joke-writers have simply embraced this style of political comedy to comically undermine critics.
Like it or not, those seeking the presidency in 2016 better do more than build a network of fundraisers and supporters. You’d better work on your comedic barbs, because American politics is becoming the country’s toughest room to play.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.