Whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, an independent or something else altogether, it’s difficult to deny the contributions President George W. Bush has made to comedy. He has been like the mountain full of gold in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” except in this case the mountain is leaving instead of the prospectors.
When President-elect Barack Obama officially takes over on Jan. 20, he will not only assume duties involving the economy, health care, national security and many others, he will also be given the solemn task of providing this nation’s wisenheimers with stuff at which to make cracks. From George Washington’s wooden choppers all the way up to W.’s myriad malapropos, the President of the United States has always occupied a hallowed place in the pantheon of ridicule.
But there is a good chance that Obama could fumble this sacred responsibility. Because he is perceived by most Americans as being intelligent, has refused to (so far) butcher the language, and has no detectable flaws in style and delivery, he may very well cause great hardship to the fine men and women of America entrusted with the job of zinging him.
Yet like Joe the Plumber and Joe Six Pack before him, Joe One-Liner will sit in a room somewhere in either New York or Los Angeles with a lot of other smart alecks and find something.
“Right now we still have a little Sarah Palin afterglow,” said Ted Mulkerin, co-head writer for “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson,” lamenting the close of a fertile comedic administration and the recent election. “Then there will be the ‘Everything Must Go’ Bush jokes, ‘Everything 75 percent off.’ Then the transition from Cheney’s dungeon to Biden. Then the Obama presidency itself.”
Said Jonathan Morano, the other co-head writer on Ferguson’s staff: “It’s still too early. We’ll still get some mileage out of Bush. Joe the Plumber, a couple more minutes. Sarah Palin as well. But then we’ll see what Obama does. As soon as he does one thing, then the hook is in.”
‘Deep-sea fishing without bait’
Speaking of hooks, Billy Martin, head writer for “Real Time with Bill Maher,” used a fishing analogy of his own to describe the changeover. “We’ve gone from shooting fish in a barrel to deep-sea fishing without bait while Ann Coulter tugs on the rod,” he said.
Obama could get the economy back on track, repair relations with allies overseas and rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. If he does, it will signal an unwillingness to cooperate with comedy writers. If, however, he says something he shouldn’t (the recent Nancy Reagan “séance” remark, for instance, marked a promising start), or if he chokes on a pretzel while watching football, or if he shoots someone in the face, it might lift the spirits of joke weavers everywhere despondent over the end of the Bush Administration.
“There may be a grace period in the beginning,” Mulkerin said. “Obviously, we can’t make jokes about race. But now that he’s president, if he screws up we’ll attack as if it’s any other president.”
In fact, some funnymen and women welcome the change. Eight years of the same president? Imagine eight years of seeing the same standup comic at the same Las Vegas hotel.
“The Bush-is-an-idiot joke was so played out,” noted Andy Borowitz, a comedian who compiles the Borowitz Report at borowitzreport.com and whose blog also appears on the Huffington Post. Some of the headlines on his site include “Failure to Blow Election Stuns Democrats” and “Obama Releases List of Approved Jokes About Himself.”
“It was getting very boring and hacky,” he continued. “The idea that Obama is hard to make fun of is a myth. Obama’s performance at the Al Smith dinner is proof that there are many jokes to be made about him.”
Caroline Hirsch knows funny. She has been running a comedy club since 1981 and currently presides over Caroline’s on Broadway in New York, one of the premier venues for jokers in the country. Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Rosie O’Donnell and Tim Allen, among many others, have graced her stage, and some of them have even told jokes about the president.
She thinks an Obama presidency will create an entire new comic frontier. “He will help raise the intelligence of the jokes,” she said. “And the minute he screws up, they will go after him like race is nothing. They’ll even play into the race card, in a good way.
“We all have stereotypes we know about each other. Even his quirky name. They’ll talk about his family. Everybody in that family is dressed so color coordinated. That will come out. And getting a new dog. Comics will make fun of him, but right now they haven’t had a chance to react. We don’t have anything yet. There’s not much to go on.”
Martin, who has also written for Maher’s previous show, “Politically Incorrect,” recalled how comedy writers in general reacted when Bill Clinton took office.
“With Clinton it was, at first, ‘They’re hillbillies,’” he said. “Then it was, ‘Oh wait, they’re smart.’ Then it was, ‘Oh, he’s a fatty. He stopped at McDonald’s while jogging. Then we got a gift at Easter, which was Monica. Then that’s all he was: a horn dog.”
Just like the electorate, audiences will divide into Republican and Democrat, fringe and mainstream. Some of the folks on the far left will be offended by anything said about Obama, just like those at the edge of the other camp bristled at jokes about Bush. Yet for the most part, Americans seem to be able to put their political differences aside and unite in the pursuit of a hearty guffaw.
“Most of the audiences play along,” Hirsch said. “You have comedians who are very liberal. Then there are some, like Nick DePaolo and Dennis Miller, who are very conservative. Most jokes are made by liberals.”
Veritable gold rush of material
That could also be cyclical. Since Bush has occupied the White House for the past eight years, most jokes were about him and his Republican colleagues. When President Clinton was in office, that certainly was a veritable gold rush of material.
“With Bill Clinton, we used him as an incorrigible horn dog who had sex with anything that moved,” Mulkerin said. “That may or may not have been the truth. But that’s the kind of stuff people expected as far as jokes.”
“That’s all we had on Clinton,” Morano said. “We’re still making fun of blow jobs.”
Martin said that although Maher is perceived as liberal, “Bill doesn’t like to be shoe-horned. He’s a liberal progressive libertarian, but he’s very conservative on other issues. Most of Bill’s material doesn’t push a political agenda, it’s more about exposing truths.
“It’s important for us to hold everybody across the political spectrum’s feet to the fire.”
No matter what jokes are mined during an Obama Administration, there will be a sense of melancholy among those who make jokes at other people’s expense, and especially the current president. Bush’s exit may mean we are seeing the end of a golden age of political humor.
“We could be,” Borowitz said. “But that’s a little like the Egyptians in the Old Testament bemoaning the end of a golden era of locusts. I’d rather have less satire and more peace and prosperity. We can always joke about something else — like Joe Scarborough.”