SNL and What’s So Funny About Barack Obama?
Last week was fueled with speculation about who would play Barack Obama on Saturday Night Live’s first post strike show. After some speculation about some rising African American comics joining the show specifically to play Obama, when Saturday rolled around, Fred Armisen was in the role.
From my eye, Armisen didn’t really seem to have Obama down, but I don’t think that’s his fault. The problem is there’s no good (or lame) joke about Obama yet - where Obama is the target.
During the 2000 campaign, the New York Times ran a fascinating article about how late night jokes contribute to the perception of a candidate. The title: “The Stiff Guy vs. the Dumb Guy.” Essentially a candidate gets at least one word - often exactly one word - which becomes their comedic persona. They become a kind of a shorthand for jokes that time-presseed monologue writers can be sure will land.
Because comedy writers don’t have that shorthand yet for Obama, there’s no comedic trait to attribute to a Barack Obama impression. Once a trait is found, that influences everything from the mannerisms. Hillary Clinton has a comedic trait - that’s she’s false. It makes a building block for Amy Poehler‘s spot-on replication of Hillary’s laughter. (It’s arguably the chicken and the egg here - Hillary’s laugh helped create the “false” trait.)
It can be argued that the writers strike helped Obama. For a whole month he was in the public eye without comedy writers searching for a joke to make about the candidate (the few writers who were working for Letterman and Fuergeson didn’t find one during that time either).
If you scour a month of the Late Night Joke Archive, you won’t find a single joke in there where Obama is the target. He’s mentioned in the jokes, but they’re mostly to make a joke about other candidates… often Hillary Clinton. Hillary has lots of comedic hooks and you can find many of them in the archive. Besides the notions that she’s false, there’s regular jabs at her femininity with increasingly stale pantsuit jokes. She’s also the butt of Bill Clinton as Lothario jokes. On rare occasions a joke will be so thinly veiled that the writers might as well used the word “bitch.” John McCain also already has at least one of his comedic traits defined - his advanced age and the senility that comes with it.
Not that Obama will be hurt by whatever comedic trait he’s labeled with. Sometimes this shorthand joke label can help. I believe that joking about Bush being stupid helped him, minimizing expectations of his debate performances and playing into his black or white worldview. It decreased public awareness that the man was a shrewd politician and made him more of a regular guy. A caricature of arrogance and ego would have done far more on target description, although it’s obviously a harder position to tell jokes from. But it was fertile territory against at least of his opponents. Gore contented with jokes about arrogance in 2000, thanks to missteps that got turned into the fertile comic territory “I invented the Internet.”
Obama has demonstrated some political jiu-jitsu with attacks, but eventually in public life he will be pined down and given a comedic trait. What will it be and how will that perception affect his candidacy? Perhaps the argument shouldn’t be that he hasn’t been vetted, but that he hasn’t been satirized.