Jokes in politics are like fireworks: used properly they dazzle; mishandle them and they blow up in your face. It’s not easy being funny without giving offense, and it’s hard to be self-deprecating while maintaining the dignity of high office.
One of President Obama’s chief speechwriters told me that coming up with jokes for the Press Correspondents Dinner is the toughest writing challenge next to drafting the State of the Union address. A good joke can quickly win a crowd, but a bad joke will lose one even faster. Unfortunately for politicians and their audiences, the latter is much more common. Fortunately for us, their embarrassment makes for great education.
#1: Beware ambiguity
“You know, education – if you make the most of it – you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”
“I was misunderstood” is not a recognized defense in the court of public opinion. Sen. John Kerry’s remarks to a group of college students were immediately condemned from all sides as flagrantly elitist and disparaging toward America’s soldiers. Kerry struggled to explain his slip-up; the joke was supposed to be:
“I can’t overstress the importance of a great education. Do you know where you end up if you don’t study, if you aren’t smart, if you’re intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush.”
Always assume that someone will try to quote your words out of context, and construct your jokes with linguistic saboteurs in mind. Write clearly to avoid misinterpretation and be sure to actually deliver what you’ve prepared.
#2: Revise before you improvise
“This fellow here over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is. He’s with my opponent… Let’s give a welcome to Macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.“
Comedians truly skilled at improv are rare, but politicians skilled at improv are downright mythological. It’s tempting to fire off a perfect retort on the fly, but more than one multi-decade career has ended over a single, ill-advised quip.
Sen. George Allen was addressing a friendly crowd, and the audience was already laughing with him. Allen, caught up in the good feelings of the moment, casually decided to get some more laughs by calling his opponent’s op-research staffer by a silly, made-up name, “Macaca.”
Regardless of whether Allen knew the racial undertones that would be read into his statement, it was a mistake to lower his guard and improvise a wisecrack. Spontaneity lends authenticity, but unrehearsed humor is risky – it’s hard to know how a joke might be interpreted until it leaves your lips.
So how do you use humor to interact with an audience without risking ruin? The answer is to prepare for any debate or town hall or real-time back-and-forth the way you prepare for a rap battle – an intense, rapid-fire exchange of insults, disses, and counter-insults. Rappers thrill audiences with these improvised displays of rhetoric and rhyme, but most of the improvisation consists of applying prepared remarks to the current context. Eminem’s collected notes and scribblings are thicker than the Yale debate team’s casebook.
President Reagan was a master at naturally incorporating humor into his exchanges – not because he was a much quicker thinker, but because he entered situations carrying a reserve of prepared quips in anticipation of likely topics. Reagan was old, so it made sense to prepare retorts to counter likely criticisms about his age, e.g.
I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
George Allen knew his opponent was sending conspicuous operatives to his events. If he had prepared, he might not have despaired.
#3: Stay on target
“Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because her father is Janet Reno.”
Sen. John McCain could’ve avoided that gaffe if he followed Rule #2 better, but the former bomber pilot also should’ve focused on his intended target in order to avoid inflicting collateral damage. The joke was well received at a Republican fundraiser (though see Rule #5) but attacking politicians through their children is always regarded as unsporting and distracting from “real issues.” McCain apologized for his “insensitive and stupid and cruel” remark, showing once again that cruel and clever jokes are just cruel jokes that draw extra attention. In keeping with Rule #1, if you have a target in mind, make sure you’re aiming at it.
#4: Humor should be funny
If you’re in politics, why are you cracking jokes in the first place? Good reasons are getting attention, seeming likeable and clever, and making people laugh at your opponents. To do these things you only need to get your audience to smile at some reasonable bit of wit; generally the funnier you try to be, the fewer people will get your humor.
A proper attack-joke highlights and amplifies some real flaw in your opponent instead of relying on shock value and absurdity to get a cheap laugh.
#5 Never lower your guard
“No, no. I’ve been practicing. I bowled a 129… It’s like – it was like Special Olympics, or something.”
President Obama’s interview with Jay Leno was going well until he broke Rules #2 and #3. His self-deprecating bit about lousy bowling skills was fine – an amusing, humanizing flaw even a president can admit without losing face. And once Obama had successfully delivered the joke to the full extent he had prepared, he should’ve moved on. Instead the President doubled down on self-deprecation and continued to emphasize his lack of bowling skills by placing himself beneath another group known to do poorly at sports – the Special Olympics.
He immediately realized he’d missed his target and Rule #3. Negative comparisons damage both the target and the group being compared – in this case, disabled children. Like George Allen at his rally, Obama was caught up in the easy conversation. He spoke naturally and freely when he should have been watching his words.
Politicians are known for their egos, but it takes a strong superego to keep humor appropriate. Public figures who are politically correct in their private lives, who don’t chuckle at inappropriate jokes, who wouldn’t mind being tape recorded 24/7 are free to skip Rule #5. For the rest of us humans, there are worse habits than taking two seconds to check that the quip on the tip of our tongues isn’t dumb, racist, or cruel. People might even mistake the pause for genuine thoughtfulness.