The most difficult election for political humor
Published: Sunday, November 11, 2012
Updated: Sunday, November 11, 2012 20:11
As a political humor writer, I am very nervous about having Murphy and Richard Blumenthal as our senators,” wrote Hartford Courant columnist Colin McEnroe in August. “They’re bad for business.” Chris Murphy indeed won election last Tuesday – as did President Obama, perhaps the most difficult president to make fun of in decades.
We have just survived the most boring presidential election in years. 2000 was one of the closest election in American history, featuring the seemingly-endless recount. 2004 featured the always misspeaking walking punch line George W. Bush. 2008 was a comedic gold mine. As “The Late Late Show” host Craig Ferguson described it, “I like all four of these candidates a lot. For comedy reasons, they can’t be beat. You got your, your grizzled old veteran who’s trying to win one last campaign. You got the brash rookie who inspires millions. You got that hockey mom who is governor by day, naughty librarian by night. And you’ve got Biden, who’s all ‘Biden-ey.’”
What happened this time around? Almost the exact opposite. The New York Times described the problems for “Saturday Night Live” in creating their traditional opening sketch for the Saturday following the first presidential debate. “The debate itself turned out to be a challenge. There were no big gaffes or obvious springboards for comedy,” Bill Carter wrote. “Instead, the first debate of this election offered up a blizzard of policy details.” Cast member Seth Meyers was described as watching the debate “with increasing concern” and lamenting, “It’s boring enough when they’re talking about all this and how it will affect Americans, but when you’re sitting there trying to pull comedy out of it, it’s really bad.”
I watched online opening monologues from all major late night comedians the day after the election, and was struck by how weak most of them were. My personal favorite moment was not even related to this election specifically but could have occurred in any presidential election year. The recurring segment from “Jimmy Kimmel Live” called “Lie Witness News” asked passerby on the street their opinions on political events which had yet to occur, or even which never occurred. As Kimmel explained it, “We’ve asked people if they voted, we asked them that the day before the election. We asked them who won the debate, the day before the debate happened. We asked people if they saw the First Lady debate, which is something which has never happened. And each time, we found people who had strong opinions on these imaginary events.” The show then proceeded to show those answers, which doubtless embarrassed the respondents for life. Then again, they agreed to appear on camera.
The immediate future does not bode particularly well for a political comedy rebound. Yes, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey is really fat, but that’s about it. While Vice President Biden is funnier than President Obama, when it comes to humor value Biden pales in comparison to George W. Bush or Sarah Palin. The illegality of marijuana – long a favorite topic for many comedians, notably George Carlin and Bill Maher – will be much less funny now that the first two states of Colorado and Washington just legalized the substance, with at least a few more states likely joining the club within the coming decade. Assuming political partisanship and gridlock are as bad as they have been the past two years, there will not even be many bills to make fun of. “Late Night” host Jimmy Fallon managed to successfully joke about this lack of political activity, noting that photographs of President Obama tossing a football on the White House lawn marked “the first time President Obama has passed something.”
Some jokes will always remain true and spark laughter, such as George Carlin’s famous quote from decades ago, “In America, anyone can become president. That’s the problem.” When it comes to topical and current political humor, however, we are likely witnessing a dearth as rarely seen before. All Americans wish for a government which effectively represents and serves the people. Good luck with that. Under the present arrangement, we will have the worst of both worlds: an unproductive government combined with the extreme difficulty of consistent political humor. If our system is (for the most part) broken, corrupt, and ineffective, couldn’t it at least be funny too?