So I was watching last night’s Daily Show this morning, and Jon’s guest was Zach Galifianakis. They got to talking about President Obama’s appearance on Galifianakis’ parody web series Between Two Ferns. (That appearance was great, incredibly funny, BTW, in that peculiarly funny Obama way.) Galifianakis talked about what the experience was like, coming to the White House and meeting with the President and eating in the White House lunch room. He said the food there was terrific, (and free), and they even had a dessert menu. And on the menu was an item called Chocolate Freedom. And Galifianakis said to the waiter, ‘that has to be what you guys call the President, right?’ And Jon Stewart lost it.
It was a funny Obama joke. And it coincided with this idiotic debate I found myself in on the internets, you know, the way you do, arguing with total strangers over really stupid issues, and feeling like a total doofus for getting caught up in something that dumb. The issue, as it happens, was over a not-funny Obama joke. To wit:
President Obama, Phil Mickelson and Andre Agassi are in line at a bank, each of them trying to cash a check. And Agassi gets to the front, and he doesn’t have any ID. The bank teller asks, ‘how can I be sure you’re Andre Agassi.’ And Agassi says, ‘how about this?’ And he takes a tennis racket, and hits a perfect forehand winner out the door of the bank. And the teller is impressed, and cashes the check. Mickelson gets up there and again the teller asks, ‘how can I be sure you’re Phil Mickelson?’ And Mickelson says, ‘how about this?’ and he hits a perfect nine-iron out the door of the bank. And again the teller cashes his check. Obama gets to the teller, and is asked ‘how can I be sure you’re Barack Obama?’ And Obama responds, ‘I don’t have a clue.’ And the teller says, ‘will you have that in tens or twenties, Mr. President.’
This is a joke that Mitt Romney has been telling a lot lately, on the campaign trail for the mid-term elections. I think that’s significant. Anyway, a conservative blogger I know had put this joke on his blog, said he thought it was both funny and true, funny, in fact, precisely because it’s true. I said that I thought it was neither funny or true. It’s a joke about how hopelessly incompetent Obama is. That’s a favorite Fox News/talk radio/conservative blogger meme. Obama’s in over his head, not up to the job, clueless. So it’s a joke that plays on that notion. I reject the meme, and therefore don’t think the joke is funny. And so we went back and forth, arguing over whether or not a joke was funny. Yes, it is. No, it isn’t. Yes, it is! NO, IT ISN’T!!!! Not my finest hour.
The reality is, though, there are lots of Obama jokes out there, and mostly they’re not funny at all. Some are dumb, some are mean-spirited, some just don’t make sense. Very few are genuinely clever, and most aren’t remotely true. And truth is what’s funny. Sort of.
The difficulty with Mitt Romney’s Obama joke (quoted at length above) is that it’s Mitt Romney giving it. It’s white male privilege yucking it up at the expense of an unprivileged person. It’s a joke that relies on a shared presumption of Obama incompetence. And it can look like a rich white guy chortling at the presumption of a black guy thinking he can do a job better done by rich white guys. Obama came to office with the only qualification he needed to become President; he won an election. But you can look at his resume and see deficiencies; little executive experience, had never run a big organization, had only served in the Senate a few years. He would never get hired as a CEO. His credentials were unimpressive. And for a successful former executive like Romney, watching Obama win reelection had to be infuriating.
I would suggest that Barack Obama had impressive credentials of a different sort. A community organizer/law professor, combining street smarts with academics. He’s a different kind of cat. He’s cooler. In fact, he’s cooler in a McLuhanesque sense. Marshall McLuhan contrasted ‘hot media’ (like movies) with ‘cool’ media (like television). Cool media are about reflection and contemplation, require more of viewers, involve us in both intellectual ways. Hot media are simpler, and affect us more directly and emotionally. I would suggest that Obama almost instinctively engages in cool ways with cool media. I would suggest that Fox News, and other conservative media, are by instinct hotter, more immediately emotionally engaging, but also, in a sense, at odds with their own medium. The incongruity of that interaction of the medium and message distort both. Fox takes everything way more seriously than cooler voices and heads do, and every crisis is the greatest ever, and with every decision, civilization as we know it is at stake. Obama tries not to get caught up in those sorts of games. The difference between Obama and his conservative detractors is in part stylistic. And he’s great at deflecting criticism, at flicking it off his shoulders.
That’s Obama. Hip-hop, but also Foucault. Reflective and deflective. Dispassionate and rational and funny in a self-parodying way. Ironic. In short, he’s cool. And so Romney’s joke falls flat, seems not so much unfunny as irrelevant. Uncool. (Reminds me of a tee shirt I saw recently. “Keep Provo awkward.”)
John McCain is old. George W. Bush is stupid. Clinton was terminally horny, and Mitch McConnell sounds like a cartoon turtle when he speaks. And Barack Obama is full of himself, and bad at his job. Lazy comedians can always rely on those few tried-and-tested formulas for easy laughs.But those aren’t jokes that advance political discourse, of course. They’re not that different from jokes based on ethnic stereotypes–Polish jokes, Italian jokes, Irish jokes, Swedish jokes (if you’re Norwegian), or Norwegian jokes (if you’re a Swede.)
I wonder if Obama jokes would be funnier if we went a different route; if we went for anti-humor. Anti-humor consists of jokes that don’t even try to be funny, which is what makes them funny. My son gets a lot of comedic mileage out of Latvian jokes. Latvian jokes are deliberately, intentionally unfunny, told in a mock-Eastern-European accent, spoken in tones of unwavering despair. “Knock knock. Who there? Me. Am very cold. Also hungry.” Or this one: “Man has two potatoes. Sorry. Premise of joke ridiculous. Who have two potatoes?” These sorts of anti-jokes, these deliberate parodies of ethnic jokes generally, are funny because they are so absolutely, horribly not funny. For example, this: “What do you call a black guy in the cockpit of an airplane? (Assuming an expression of outraged offense), “the pilot! What are you, racist?!?!?” An anti-joke that mocks self-righteous political correctness. Or try this one: “How many potatoes does it take to kill an Irishman? Zero.”
That’s right, an Irish potato famine joke. Too soon?
Or this: Ayn Rand, Rand Paul and Paul Ryan walk into a bar. They each order a martini. Then they die, because without regulations, contaminated alcohol was served.
It’s a perfect anti-joke. It’s self-righteous and partisan, but it simultaneously mocks self-righteous partisanship. It’s sort of true, and therefore funny, but it’s also ironic, a parody. It’s therefore also cool.
So: Barack Obama won the nomination for President by promising to get us out of Iraq. And he succeeded in doing so, despite dire warnings from mainstream news media. But now he has to send troops back there, because ISIL beheads journalists.
Not funny. An anti-joke. And therefore an Obama joke that might work, a little.