Fewer jokes in Obama White House? Comedians wonder

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. President-elect Barack Obama’s historic victory does not bode well for comedians who have thrived on jokes about President George W. Bush, experts say.

President-elect Barack Obama (L) answers a question as Vice President-elect Joseph Biden (2nd L) and Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emanuel look on during his first news conference following his election victory in Chicago, November 7, 2008. REUTERS/John Gress

Obama, who was backed by many Hollywood figures, will be inaugurated on January 20 as the United States’ first black president against a backdrop of a global financial crisis and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Whether because he was the favorite of left-leaning comics, the historic nature of his election or that so far he has made few gaffes, comedians are finding little to joke about so far.

“Obama’s election is great for our country but bad for comedy,” said Michael Musto, a columnist for New York City’s Village Voice. “He is an earnest, intelligent person trying to rescue a country in crisis and that’s not all that hilarious.”

“Comedy thrives when there are buffoonish targets,” he said. “Traditionally shows like ‘Saturday Night Live’ have done best when dealing with people like President (Gerald) Ford, who couldn’t stand upright all the time, or (Bush) who couldn’t say nuclear, or Sarah Palin who didn’t know Africa’s a continent.”

Ratings for NBC’s long-running comedy TV show “Saturday Night Live” soared during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, fueled by actress Tina Fey’s impersonation of Republican vice presidential nominee Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

And satirical news shows such as Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” and late-night talk show hosts David Letterman and Jay Leno have had regular comedy ammunition during Bush’s eight years in office.

“Barack Obama so far has been a comedian’s nightmare,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.

Even Obama joked at a dinner in New York, where both he and his Republican rival John McCain made fun of themselves, that his greatest weakness was, “I’m a little too awesome.”


CBS’s “The Late Show with David Letterman” has regularly featured a segment called “Great Moments in Presidential Speeches” that pokes fun at Bush’s public speaking and Leno, who hosts NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” lamented Obama’s win.

“I’ve got to admit, as a comedian, I’m going to miss President Bush because Barack Obama is not easy to do jokes about, he doesn’t give you a lot to go on,” he told his audience the day after the November 4 election. “See this is why God gave us (Vice President-elect) Joe Biden.”

Bush also complained about the difficulty of joking about Obama, well before the senator declared himself a presidential candidate.

“Senator Obama, I wanted to do a joke on you, but it’s like doing a joke on the pope,” Bush told a dinner in Washington in 2006. “Give me some material to work with here. You know, mispronounce something.”

But Liam O’Brien, a professor of media production at Quinnipiac University, said all is not lost because “progressive comedians will continue to wile away at what is left of the Republican Party” and Obama is bound to give them some material to work with at some point.

“As Obama said, ‘I was not born in a manger.’ He’s quite well aware, especially on tough issues and how well he’s advised by his staff, mistakes are going to get made” that will provide material for comedians, O’Brien said.

J.R. Havlan, a writer on “The Daily Show,” told The New York Times, “It’s probably no secret where our politics lie.”

“We haven’t sat around thinking, ‘What are we going to do, comedically, if Obama wins?’ There’s going to be plenty going on around him,” he said. “We look for stuff, but we don’t create it. Something has to happen for us to make fun of.”

But as comedians try to find ways to poke fun at Obama, his race is unlikely to be the first place they look for material -- that is for white comedians at least.

For black comedians, though, the sky’s the limit, said black comedian and “30 Rock” actor Tracy Morgan.

“The president is black, so obviously we’re going to make fun of every situation you could ever imagine about a black president,” he told The New York Times.

“White comedians have got to roll the dice,” he said. “If you go down that road, you better be funny.”

Editing by Mark Egan and Cynthia Osterman