The crowd sitting elbow to elbow in the basement performance space at New York City’s Comedy Cellar on a recent Wednesday night had pretty much had its fill of sex jokes, gay jokes, rants about New York cabdrivers and time-filling banter with the couple in the front row who had just gotten married a week ago. Then, a few minutes after midnight, James Smith, a lanky Australian stand-up who has appeared on HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, bounded onto the stage for a 15-minute set to do something a little different. He talked politics.
Some of his targets were old reliables like Bill Clinton, fresh from his diplomatic jaunt to North Korea. (“We need to bring two hot Asian chicks back from North Korea in a private jet,” said Smith, imagining the genesis of Clinton’s recent mission. “Who should we get?”) He delved into the economic crisis, pinpointing the bitter irony of banks’ having to declare bankruptcy (“How do you f___ up your only job?”). And he waded fearlessly into perhaps the most treacherous satiric waters of all: the new resident of the White House.
Making jokes about Barack Obama is the big test for political comedians these days, and like many, Smith did it mostly by talking around him. Obama could never get away with the kind of sexual shenanigans that Clinton did, he mused, because Michelle wouldn’t stand for it: “She would impeach him herself!” Obama’s election victory was inevitable the minute Oprah Winfrey endorsed him: “There’s nothing bigger than Oprah. Oprah can do anything. ‘Betcha can’t make a black man President.’ ‘Watch me!’ ” The joke isn’t Obama himself; it’s the cultural shift — and the country’s reaction to it — that he represents.
President Walks into a Bar …
The votes had barely been counted last November when the pundits started expressing anxiety. No, not just about whether the new President could right the economy or reform health care. The burning question for the Obama age: What the heck were political comedians going to do? For eight years they had enjoyed a comedic gift from the gods in George W. Bush, whose bumbling presidency provided even richer material than the cartoonish excesses of the Clinton years. But Obama, with his obvious smarts, low-key style and (most important) ability to catch the prevailing tone of irony and laugh at himself, has left the comics with little to hang their punch lines on. The best Jay Leno could do during the campaign was to poke fun at Obama’s mediocre bowling skills. That went into the gutter fast.
Political satire, of course, has had its ups and downs in American comedy. The Eisenhower 1950s proved a fruitful time for outsider satirists like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, and the counterculture years of the late ’60s and ’70s gave rise to stand-up social commentators like George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Robert Klein. By the ’80s, however, stand-up had mostly retreated to the home front (Roseanne Barr), the trivia of everyday life (Jerry Seinfeld) and the carefully nonpartisan “topical” jokes of Johnny Carson. In the George W. Bush years, political comedy came back in style, not just for late-night hosts like David Letterman and Jon Stewart — who are far more willing than Carson was to let their (usually left-of-center) political views show through — but also for the foot soldiers of the comedy clubs, where even guys who made their living from penis jokes were getting laughs from W.
With Bush’s departure from the scene, much of the political urgency has drifted away from stand-up comedy. Pay a visit to a typical comedy club these days and you’re more apt to get pummeled with details of the comedian’s dating life than with his views on Obama’s stimulus plan. “I’m not hearing a ton of political stuff,” says Kevin Flynn, a New York–based stand-up who has a couple of Obama jokes in his repertoire but, like a lot of his colleagues, is still feeling his way along with the change in Administrations. But he doesn’t think there’s cause for alarm. “The first six months of Bill Clinton — and George Bush too — nothing much happened that could be made fun of. Everybody is waiting for Obama to do something or for the winds to change. It hasn’t happened yet.”
Ripped from the Headlines
Still, the Bush years got stand-up comics reading the headlines again, and they haven’t stopped. The economic crisis has been a hot topic for months, health care is coming on strong, and favorite targets like Sarah Palin and Clinton have helped out by refusing to leave the stage. But when it comes to Obama, the comics are still groping. Greg Geraldo, a club stalwart whose material was filled with anti-Bush gibes a few years ago, has moved on to Obama, but mostly to execute a deft pivot — like a bit on John McCain’s befuddlement at how to combat his Democratic foe during the presidential campaign. “How the f___ am I losing? I’m a war hero!” he imagines McCain thinking. “He came this close to saying, ‘He’s black!’ ” Ted Alexandro gets a big laugh by harking back to white America’s old fears of blacks moving onto their turf: “Not only is Barack Obama our first black President, but it’s the end of white Presidents forever. Because you know what they say …”
The racial angle has also provided good fodder for African-American comics like Kyle Grooms (who does one of the better Obama impressions) and Larry Wilmore, the Daily Show‘s “senior black correspondent,” who also talks about Obama in his stand-up act. Yet Wilmore’s jabs are directed, as usual, mostly at the country’s reaction to Obama (“that is a very comfortable level of black”) rather than the President himself; the worst he can do is lampoon Obama’s habit of giving long-winded answers to even simple questions.
The problem, for white comics as well as black ones, is that they actually like Obama, and they say so. Even Lewis Black, the quivering maestro of political outrage, strains to put an edge on his obvious admiration for the President. “He’s the first leader in my lifetime who’s actually full of hope,” Black says in his act. “His nipples are bursting with hope! He’s lactating hope!” Talking after a recent set at New York’s Gotham Comedy Club, Black admits that Obama is difficult to make fun of but insists he’s had no trouble finding political material. “For me, it was never Bush. It was the social issues. Just because Bush left office, that doesn’t mean stupidity has fled the country.”
Letterman, typically, managed to turn the comedian’s predicament itself into the joke. For months after Obama’s Inauguration, the Late Show host trotted out a nerdy staff writer to read his latest attempts at coming up with Obama jokes — all of which turned out to be lamely repurposed Bush jokes. (“Barack Obama is so dumb, when he was governor of Texas, someone asked him what the capital of Texas is, and he said, ‘Capital T.’ “) Still, the edge that crept into Letterman’s comedy during the Bush years has, if anything, only gotten sharper. (Yes, he was forced to apologize for a joke about Palin’s daughter, but his obvious distaste for the former Alaska governor is evident in the wisecracks that have continued ever since.) In fact, Letterman’s monologues have doubled in length — from eight jokes a night to 16 or more — in the past year. “Sure, we’d love to see Obama trip on an Oriental rug,” says Letterman writer Bill Scheft. “But there’s plenty there. Have you seen those town-hall meetings?”
Jon Stewart’s Daily Show too has seemed even more energized in the Obama era. Stewart’s great discovery, of course, was that political satire in the 2000s no longer requires actual jokes. All that’s needed is merely to present the hypocrisy and pomposity of political leaders in their raw, unvarnished form (Republicans denouncing Sonia Sotomayor on the floor of the U.S. Senate, say, before her inevitable confirmation) and append it with a sarcastic exclamation point or simply a mugging reaction shot. And if conservative politicians and talk-show hosts still bear the brunt of most of Stewart’s barbs, Obama has hardly come away unscathed — from Stewart’s early lampooning of Obama worship (in one video, the Democratic candidate was presented to the world like the royal cub in The Lion King) to his impatience with the friendly interplay between Obama and audience members at his first health-care town-hall meeting: “Is this a town hall or a Tom Jones concert?”
Indeed, the Obama era has helped clarify an often overlooked dichotomy in late-night TV comedy: the divide between the political satirists (Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Letterman much of the time) and the topical jokesters (Leno, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon). O’Brien’s middle-of-the-road, Carsonesque wisecracks in particular (“President Obama’s approval ratings have slumped to an all-time low, which explains Obama’s new Secret Service code name: NBC”) are looking comparatively tame now that he’s opposite the increasingly politicized Letterman — whose contempt for Bush-era politics comes through in his interviews as much as his gag lines. (It may not be a coincidence that Letterman is beating O’Brien in the ratings.) Letterman may have wimped out in apologizing for his Palin joke, but it’s hard to imagine O’Brien even cracking a Palin joke worth apologizing for.
The Bush presidency, it turns out, may have had a more lasting impact than comedians appreciate. As it opened up a bitter divide in the country, it forced stand-up comedians to take notice — and take sides. Even with a President who’s no longer a ready-made joke, for comedians, there’s no going back. As for Obama, he’ll need to watch his step. Those White House rugs can be dangerous.
(By Richard Zoglin | Time)
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