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The Comic Stylings of POTUS

Obama at the Correspondents' Dinner: "But I kid Mitch McConnell..."

Obama at the Correspondents’ Dinner: “But I kid Mitch McConnell. … “

At 10:14 PM on April 27, Barack Obama took the podium at the Washington Hilton to the tune of “All I do Is Win,” by DJ Khaled. According to the official White House transcript (which includes indications of laughter and applause), the president began by telling the crowd at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:

How do you like my new entrance music? (Applause.) Rush Limbaugh warned you about this — second term, baby. (Laughter and applause.) We’re changing things around here a little bit. (Laughter.) Actually, my advisers were a little worried about the new rap entrance music. (Laughter.) They are a little more traditional. They suggested that I should start with some jokes at my own expense, just take myself down a peg. I was like, “Guys, after four and a half years, how many pegs are there left?” (Laughter.)

I’ll say “Laughter.” As you can see from the video of his routine, POTUS killed it. (Note for a future Lingua Franca post: how and when did the traditional comedians’ term for success, to kill, take on that final pronoun?) Conan O’Brien had to follow him, and actually read his jokes off a piece of paper–I suspect Conan shrewdly decided to pretend that this wasn’t a real gig, so he wouldn’t suffer in comparison.

For years, the yardstick for presidential humor has been John F. Kennedy’s press conferences, the youthful Harvard man sparring and bobbing and weaving with the reporters wearing the same neckties and narrow lapels as he is (and that was just the girls…). When you look at video of JFK in action, he is indeed amusing, with his dry understatement and deft wordplay. Asked to comment on Vaughn Meader’s “First Family” comedy impersonations, he says, “I listened to Mr. Meader’s record and I thought it sounded more like Teddy than it did me.” Good one, old boy.

Compared to the current president’s neo-Shecky presentation, Kennedy’s schtick was old-timey to the point of being Wodehousean. But I suppose that just as Sam Levenson led on some level to Louis C.K., JFK led to BHO. Also in the meantime, the presidency has been subject to the show-bizzification of our public life. With the advent of the Correspondents’ clambake, the Al Smith Dinner, and other such events, top politicians are now expected not only to acquire A-level material, but deliver it as if they’d put in their time trodding the boards at the Comedy Store and Carolines. (It is kind of weird that the convention is that they do standup, as opposed to, say, singing. Imagine if politicos habitually picked up a mike, loosened their bowtie, and launched into a rendition of “Livin’ la Vida Loca.”) These folks spend most of their working lives as public performers, and they usually acquit themselves fairly well. (Mitt Romney was a regrettable exception at last year’s Al Smith event, grinning so widely and uncomfortably that I wanted to put my arm around him and lead him to the nearest Dairy Queen for an extra-large Moolatte.)

But Obama has set a new standard. He’s got impressive comedy chops to start with: the poker face, the sense of the proper cadence of a line, the willingness to pause for a long beat while he looks off into the middle distance, in the manner of Hope or Benny. He has a trademark delivery, the way he barks out a huh! after setting down a premise. And nothing but God-given talent can explain his skill at milking or playing off a bit. The only wall this president wants to tear down is the fourth one, as he deftly riffs on the joke he’s just made:

I’m also hard at work on plans for the Obama Library. And some have suggested that we put it in my birthplace, but I’d rather keep it in the United States. (Laughter.) Did anybody not see that joke coming? (Laughter.) Show of hands. Only Gallup? Maybe Dick Morris? (Laughter and applause.)

Then, at another point:

Of course, everybody has got plenty of advice. Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in “The American President.” (Laughter.) And I know Michael is here tonight. Michael, what’s your secret, man? (Laughter.) Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy? (Laughter.) Might that have something to do with it? (Applause.) I don’t know. Check in with me. Maybe it’s something else. (Laughter.)

Now, note the Dick-Vitalesque “second term, baby” in his opening bit, the “what’s your secret, man?” and “check in with me” in the one above. The truly remarkable thing about Obama as standup is that he really is the coolest guy in the room. This may be the nerd prom, but he is no nerd. Hearing him deliver jokes, you sense he’s actually listened to his teenage daughters talk (“I was like … “) and paid attention to what they’re interested in. (“Take the sequester. Republicans fell in love with this thing, and now they can’t stop talking about how much they hate it. It’s like we’re trapped in a Taylor Swift album. [Laughter.]“) He doesn’t quite code-switch all the way–that is, adopt an identifiably African-American cadence–but he nuzzles the line, and that adds a frisson to the package.

I don’t mean to shortchange the contribution of Obama’s writers, whoever they are, to his success. They gave him some great words, perfect for showing some self-deprecation (a comedy wonder drug) and some bristly attitude as well:

  • “These days, I look in the mirror and I have to admit, I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be. (Laughter.) Time passes. You get a little gray. (Laughter.)”
  • “There are other new players in the media landscape as well, like super PACs. Did you know that Sheldon Adelson spent $100-million of his own money last year on negative ads? You’ve got to really dislike me — (laughter) — to spend that kind of money. I mean, that’s Oprah money. (Laughter.) You could buy an island and call it ‘Nobama’ for that kind of money. (Laughter.)”
  • “Of course, even after I’ve done all this, some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress. “Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?” they ask. Really? (Laughter.) Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell? (Laughter and applause.)”

Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have done the humanitarian thing; George W. Bush has done … what exactly is it that he’s done? A sort of Monet at Giverny meets Ozzie and Harriet’s amiable next-door neighbor, I suppose. Anyway, when Obama is a strapping late-middle-aged Muslim socialist, I can see him with his own series on Comedy Central. As long as he keeps his writers, he would kill it.

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