The Art of Political Humor

MiMi Yeh

Few people tend to associate humor with politics. The ignorance of the American public concerning their government and its myriad functions is overwhelming. Most of our references to the culture of politics are derived from such authoritative bodies as “The Late Show With David Letterman” or “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.” The only time we tend to pay attention is when the odd bit of sexual scandal, corruption, or graft is exposed. Then the collective ears of the nation perk up and the members of the public become experts in politics, able to comment on any aspect of the character in question, knowledge of policy or even what party they belong to be damned!

The night of Wednesday, October 16, saw the appearance of some of this country’s most well-known public figures: Al Franken, Helen Thomas, Senator Alan Simpson, and, acting as mediator, Jeff Greenfield, all involved in a discussion of the history and use of humor in politics at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.

Comedian Al Franken is the author of Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, besides having written for “Saturday Night Live” during the 1980’s and having been on Comedy Central’s “Politically Incorrect” numerous times. Helen Thomas, known to eight administrations, has seen presidents come and go, all the while writing for them as a now-former correspondent for United Press International. Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson has been active in politics since 1958 and, from 1985-1995; he served as the Republican whip and chairman of the Committee on Veteran’s Affairs. Jeff Greenfield, host of “Greenfield At Large,” is also CNN’s senior analyst for “Inside Politics,” the nation’s first program devoted exclusively to politics.

The forum ran like the political version of a Comedy Connection show; nonstop laughter. It was definitely a different crowd that attended this sort of function. Presidential candidates, whether they were winners or losers, as well as those who’ve become lost on the re-election trail, were all remembered. Like the ghosts of Christmases past and present, figures popped up from the early 1960’s all the way through to the present. If you didn’t know the names, the speakers could provide the occasional insight and context.

The focus of the forum was not only the lack of awareness on the part of the American citizens concerning current events, but also how humor can sometimes make or break an election or allow a candidate or representative to create a certain image for the public.

It’s widely known that most public figures employ speechwriters. However, they also use humor transplantation: transference of witty comments thought up by others and voiced by those figures during cocktail parties and functions. Is that even ethical? ‘It’s no more fraudulent than for Bush’s speechwriter to write a brilliant speech…America doesn’t want the funniest person in the world to be President. They just want someone with a sense of humor,” commented Franken

Greenfield said humor might be used as political judo, “Take a weakness, put a light touch to it, and flip it…this country was born in rebellion against authority. This is a deep-seated tradition.” Indeed, it can be powerful tool when election year rolls around. However, Senator Simpson takes a different view. “All humor is serious. When you hear someone say ‘ha ha, it’s just a joke,’ it’s not.”

Greenfield quoted an anecdote that John McCain had mentioned in his book, Faith of My Fathers, in which a presidential candidate stated that he finally knew the difference between a cactus and a caucus in that on a cactus “all the pricks are on the outside” in citing an example of political humor.

The chemistry between the players was explosive in the way they rocketed between one topic and another, with astute, pointed gibes that seemed to reach into the heart of the issue at hand.

Franken displayed the rare ability to mix an impressive grasp of politics with your average dick and fart jokes, usually providing across the board laughs. Greenfield tried to remain neutral and lead the discussion, which he did, but was overwhelmed occasionally by his rapport with Franken. Thomas maintained an observant posture, speaking up when she felt the need to make a sharp observation and startling the rest who carried on a free-flowing dialogue with the audience and each other. Simpson was dry in his commentary and somewhat conservative in his humor, not surprising considering his background.

Some of the topics discussed was humor, post-9/11 and whether it was appropriate and particularly Bill Maher’s comment that lobbing missiles from three thousand miles being “cowardly” in comparison to flying a plane into a building. Franken put it best by saying that it was a matter of poor timing, politics with ABC news network, and the fact that “9/11 changed so much. One of the things it’s changed is sending troops into Afghanistan. We were only willing to send troops in once three thousand casualties were taken.”

One particular subject that all involved warmed to was the subject of John Ashcroft and the situation involving the covering of Lady Justice’s nudity. Thomas simply said, “I don’t think he should go to Rome.” Simpson described Ashcroft as being, “Rigid and being a man of principle. He feels strongly about abortion.” Franken neatly summed it up by saying, “He’s a weird man. He spent $8,000 to cover up Lady Justice’s bare breast,” to which Greenfield responded, “If it was Clinton, they would’ve bared both.”

According to Thomas, Bob Dole is quite funny, in spite of the public perception of him as a boring old man. At a function, he commented on her gown, complimenting her in saying that it looked like it could’ve come from J. Edgar Hoover’s (former director of the FBI and a transvestite) closet. One would think that it requires a great sense of humor to be able to do Viagra ads with a straight face.

Most of what is learned about politics comes from the television. They pick the most negative trait of a person and define them by it, like Bush’s stupidity. “I never knew one moment in the eight years of the Clintons that they weren’t ridiculed,” according to Thomas. “Well, that wasn’t entirely the fault of late night comedians,” said Franken.