The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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No drama Obama: A comedy-killing president?

November 5, 2008 |  5:36 pm

Obamamag_4 For months, comedy writers and comedians have been brooding about the horrifying prospect of an Obama presidency, fearing the worst--the man isn't funny. Or more to the point: It isn't fun to make fun of him. Apparently having had a series of fat targets like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin around has made comedians lazy. With no easy hook for laughs, they're worried that with the nation in a kumbaya mood--at least for the near future--that Obama jokes will fall flat. That's certainly what happened this summer with the New Yorker's Obama cover parody, which prompted a firestorm of criticism by casting the presidential aspirant as a fist-bumping terrorist. (The flap prompted conservatives to charge--quite rightly, if you ask me--that the liberal media had a bizarre double standard about the limits of satire.)

I think their fears are vastly overstated. Bill Maher and Jon Stewart may be Obama admirers, but they're also professionals--they'll soon find something worthy of mocking, especially since Obama, being a churchgoer, would be a great target for a religionophobe like Maher. Remember, it took a couple of years of JFK residence in the White House before Vaughn Meader hit the jackpot with "The First Family" album. But what do I know? I asked the veteran political satirist Paul Slansky, who has skewered Bush in recent years everywhere including the New Yorker, 23-6 and (where he does a weekly news satire) to offer his theory on the matter. He says:

"Obama certainly won't be funny in the same way Bush was funny. The humor will probably be more like the 'First Family' humor aimed at Kennedy, which was a great opportunity for satirists, since it was the first recognizable family in the White House in decades. But it's true--how to make fun of Obama will be a major challenge. Until now, it was easy for me to keep track of the sins of the president. But I'm not an equal opportunity satirist. When Bush isn't there anymore, I'm going back to my personal life. When Clinton was president, I managed to get married and have a daughter."

Still, I'm betting someone else will step up to the plate. It's certainly clear that the Onion isn't having problems getting their comedy motor running. They already hit paydirt today with this gem. Here's their mock news lead: "WASHINGTON--African-American man Barack Obama, 47, was given the least desirable job in the entire country Tuesday when he was elected president of the United States of America." 

Anyone who thinks political satire is dead sorely underestimates the fundamentally neurotic desire of comedians to get a big laugh. If I were Obama, I wouldn't get complacent. When you're president, there's always a comedy bull's-eye on your back.

The New Yorker cover illustration by Barry Blitt