Americans have become accustomed, maybe even resigned, to a government run by politicians who are sometimes smart, somber, serious, indignant, angry or even idiotic. Rarely, however, do we have politicians who we find funny, but I would like to challenge our complacency. Are the unfunny better fit for politics? Or perhaps better put, are funny politicians really better served by hiding their humor?
Politicians are wary of humor because bad jokes are often offensive and offensive comments lead to political catastrophe. President Obama’s remark comparing his bowling to the Special Olympics is the type of gaffe we have come to expect when politicians are not reading from carefully planned notes. So maybe politicians should play it safe and leave jokes to the professionals. After all, if there is one sector in which politicians have excelled at job creation, it’s the comedy industry. As long as there are politicians, there will be comedians to mock them.
Despite the upsetting levels of voter apathy in the U.S., Americans love a comedy routine roasting the government. When we are fed up with the government, we often find that humor is the most effective instrument for putting our frustration into words. Jokes have the ability to cut through layers of political rhetoric and to reveal a simple, underlying absurdity, and a good humorist makes that absurdity painfully clear.
Humor revealing a stark and simple reality can have serious ramifications. Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live” brilliantly cut straight through the details of the debate over whether Palin was a qualified candidate and left millions with a lasting impression that Palin was an idiot. Case closed. She singlehandedly defined our memory of Palin with the line “I can see Russia from my house.”
Politicians are not unaware of the power of humor, and over the years, a few have managed to use it to their advantage with remarkable success. John F. Kennedy’s funny response to criticisms that he was winning primaries with his father’s money (winning primaries with money, unthinkable!) totally illegitimized the critique as mere squabbling, and Kennedy went on to serve as perhaps the wittiest president of all time. Ronald Reagan is also famous for a collection of hilarious remarks, including his response to a reporter’s question of what type of governor he would be (“I don’t know. I’ve never played a governor”) and his line, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” That simple joke so perfectly encapsulated the philosophy and purpose of the Republican Party that it has since been used relentlessly by the GOP.
Even if you do not agree with their politics, it is undeniable that these were among our most effective politicians. They were men who permanently changed the political landscape of our country. Now that every politician claims that he or she will bring change, maybe we ought to look for candidates with a sense of humor to find out which one of them is telling the truth. A politician who is witty might posses that same skill we attributed to comedians, the ability to cast aside political entanglement and examine the essence of a problem. “It’s complicated” should not serve as an excuse for inaction. Politics has always been complicated, and maybe a leader with a sense of humor will be able to see the simplicity at the center of the complications and then conquer them.
I do, however, encourage humor cautiously. There are different types of humor. Kennedy and Reagan used smart, short, wry remarks to capture political realities. Reagan’s one line about the government trying to help implicitly carried the intellectual weight of the argument for small government, but was worth more because it was universally accessible and appealing. This sort of humor is smart and inoffensive, and that is what makes it so difficult and so rare.
It is no coincidence that Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann were the first candidates gone from the Republican field. Americans are smart enough to dismiss xenophobic and base humor meant to stir ignorant passions — see Cain’s not-so-funny remark about the unimportance of the president of “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan” or Bachmann’s on how God punished bad governance with hurricanes and earthquakes.
Americans are also smart enough to be skeptical of candidates with seemingly no humor at all, which is perhaps why Romney, whose rare jokes often elicit only a forced laugh from himself (just see his post-Iowa victory speech) is having such a hard time winning the candidacy.
Yes, we learn a lot about a candidate from his or her sense of humor, and the GOP candidates have so far proven with theirs that they should never be let near the White House.
Matt Antoszyk is a sophomore in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.