Barack Obama - The Third Rail of Comedy

What’s a poor comedian to do these days, now that America finally has a competent, serious President in the Oval Office who is virtually impossible to mock?

Stop laughing!  That’s a serious question, to hear David Letterman ask it:

“…And the challenge for us here at the Late Show, what are we gonna do to make fun of the president?  Because that’s what we do – we take cheap shots at the president.  And uh, we didn’t know what to do the first four years of Clinton, we thought, wow – what’s going on there?  And then…bingo!  And then Bush proved to be another mother lode.  I mean, what a rich, deep vein that was! 

”But we don’t know what to do with Barack Obama.  Because he comes in, and he hits the ground running and whether he’s been doing anything good, he’s at least doin’ stuff!  He’s gone crazy – he’s always doin’ stuff!  And I said, oh God – I’m gonna have to go back to telling toothpaste jokes.”

This was Letterman’s way of setting up a long-awaited, Late Show litany of knee-slapping Obama gags, which turned out to be…recycled Bush/Cheney jokes.   

Rich, deep vein indeed.

Wanda Sykes also struggled with Letterman’s dilemma at this past weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner:

“…It’s hard to poke fun at the president.  Because he’s so likeable.  Everybody likes him!  T-shirts, bumper stickers, listening to the radio and people are dedicating songs…

Now, I’m not inclined here to pile on Sykes for her ribald, racist, and sometimes even funny routine at Saturday night’s gathering in D.C.  She’s just doing what she does.  Furthermore, this event traditionally has a quasi-roast vibe to it, and let’s face it – when you book Sykes for the gig, you can’t be too shocked by a couple of ‘nipple’ jokes or references to ‘pulling out at the last minute’ (naturally, the latter was a Sarah Palin joke).  One might reasonably ask why Sykes isn’t a ‘straight-up racist’ – as Janeane Garofalo might say – for referring to Obama as a mulatto (hello!) or pointing out that RNC Chairman Michael Steele is ‘in the heezy’, but let’s save the liberal psycho-analysis for another time.  Taken in context, and with several grains of salt, I’ll indulge Sykes on this level and even crack a smile, assuming I’m allowed to do that as a white guy.

But was anyone besides Keith Olbermann really splitting a gut when Sykes wished kidney failure upon Rush Limbaugh, mocked his well-publicized addiction to prescription medication, bizarrely referred to him as 9/11’s “20th hijacker”, and accused him of treason?  It would take an ocean’s worth of salt to see the humor in those comments.

I think I see where this is headed.

Going forward, the generally accepted comedic premise will be that Obama himself is untouchable, so obviously competent in his role as President that nobody can credibly lampoon him.  (Stay with me here.)  Yet that very premise can also be cleverly utilized to allow the comic to actually make Obama jokes – especially if stated explicitly up front, as was the case for Letterman and Sykes.  This way, the audience understands it has permission to to laugh at tepid, half-hearted Obama TelePrompter jokes, Michelle Obama’s right to ‘bare arms’, and so forth – because they know the comic means no harm by the jabs. Of course, racial jokes are still very much off-limits, unless you happen to be black like Sykes – in which case even the most taboo, cringe-worthy epitaphs are fair game.  (And hilarious!)

The best part?  The tried and true crowd-pleasers – that is, the Bush/Cheney/Republican put-downs – can still be used to great effect.

Meanwhile, a whole season’s worth of SNL material is contained in just this one video, for example.  And it goes largely untouched by the late night writers. 

Perhaps Letterman and Sykes are right though, in a sense.  There may not be anything funny at all about Barack Obama – unless a bankrupt economy, weakened national security, and soul-crushing government encroachment on your liberty is your idea of a laugh riot.