Speechwriter or no speechwriter, any politician in public (or on Twitter) is about 10 seconds away from a terrible joke. Often, that just means a cringeworthy pun, like Tim Kaine going full dad and telling radio hosts“they call me Lil Kaine, not Lil Wayne.” Less frequently, but much more memorably, it means an attempt at humor that winds up being confusing or offensive—or both.
Samson slew Philistines with the jawbone of an ass; CNN now known as “Samson Channel”–reports news with jawbone of an ass. #fakenews BAM!
Most of the time, politicians being unfunny comes down to the usual Catch-22 of four-quadrant appeal: in trying to amuse everyone, you amuse no one. (See: CBS sitcoms.) But as the nation becomes more and more polarized, those jokes are looking a lot less like folksy pleas for likability, and a lot more like humorless ad-hominem attacks—which turns comedy from a bridge into a bomb.
The Real Reason You Can’t Please Everyone
If you ask a linguist, jokes depend on resolving incongruity: by juxtaposing some things that don’t seem to go together, you create a moment of tension, and then diffuse that tension with a punchline. “It’s a cognitive process,” says Paul Lewis, who teaches English at Boston College and is the author of Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict. “You’re solving a little puzzle at the heart of the joke.” (Yes, even puns. Especially puns.)
Trouble is, if you’re calibrating a mental exercise to appeal to the lowest common denominator, it’s going to end up simple, silly, and unsatisfying. “When people have run experiments on this, the joke most people got all over the world was, ‘What’s brown and sticky? A stick,’” says Scott Weems, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why. “Politicians are striving for a broad audience, and mediocrity.”
That’s how you end up the classic political dad joke—which, despite the name, is a favorite of politicians of all genders. (Remember when Hillary Clinton encouraged voters to “Pokemon Go to the polls”?) A truly terrible example might be this dud from President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address:
In case you missed that, here’s what he said:
We got rid of one rule from 40 years ago that could have forced some dairy farmers to spend $10,000 a year proving that they could contain a spill—because milk was somehow classified as an oil. With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk.
The groaner spawned a slew ofderisive coverage. “It’s a labored joke, straining for that incongruity,” Lewis says. But it’s not going to confuse anybody. That’s why it’s in the State of the Union address, and not in one of Obama’s famous White House Correspondents’ Dinner routines. The former is aimed at the public, and that’s exactly how cleverness gives way to hackishness.
So why even bother? Well, votes. But it turns out that only certain jokes work. “Scientists have tested politicians’ jokes on people, and found self-effacing humor isn’t just funny, it makes people more likely to vote for you. Obama is actually pretty good at that,” Weems says. “A lot of politicians fail because they aren’t tuned to making fun of themselves.”
So if a politician is too stuffy or self-important to poke fun at her own foibles—which, let’s face it, seems likely—then you’re left with either tortured puns, or joking about other people. And that’s when things get really brown and sticky.
Punching Down Doesn’t Work Either
The biggest determining factor in whether you think Mike Huckabee’s jokes are adorkable or insufferably offensive is whether you agree with this politics. “If you feel affiliated with the person being mocked, you’re much less likely to see something funny,” Lewis says.
Like this unnecessarily harsh (and transphobic) jab from Huckabee:
Breaking news from Hollywood! Sen. Chuck Schumer cast in lead role for remake of “Boys Don’t Cry.”
There’s no linguistic puzzle to be found in either of these jokes; they’re just personal attacks. “Among Huckabee’s friends, these jokes probably do work,” Weems says. “It’s more about content than delivery.” Same deal on the Democratic side, where it’s open season on just about every member of the Trump family and administration. All of that reflects poorly on the empathy of these political jokesters, and their audiences. “This kind of joke is often a way of expressing aggression and unconscious desires,” Lewis says. “That’s better than smacking somebody in the head, but they’re dogwhistles to their supporters.”
It’s a distinctly non-virtuous cycle: Humor in the political arena has become less about wit and more a way to disparage the people who disagree with you.
Many of President Trump’s jokes—like his nicknames for his opponents or multiple “bad hombres” comments—fall into this category. In fact, if you’ve ever been to or seen footage of a Trump rally, you know his jokes kill in the room, even as they drive his opposition into a rage spiral. Which, in turn, just makes his supporters find him even funnier, and his detractors find him even more offensive. It’s a distinctly non-virtuous cycle: Humor in the political arena has become less about wit and more a way to disparage the people who disagree with you.
“Our definition of humor is splintering,” Weems says. “Politicians don’t care so much about reaching a broader audience anymore.” And if the filter bubbles have already come for politicians’ crappy jokes, who’s to say what they’ll ruin next?
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