Last Laughs?

For President Obama, a Cautious, Sober Night of Comedy

From a friendly but somber ‘Daily Show’ appearance to a hilarious (if pre-approved) performance at the Al Smith dinner, the candidate in chief kept his laughs under control.

10.19.12 8:45 AM ET

It was, for President Obama, a night of pre-arranged comedy, though whether he was laughing all the way to a second term is another question entirely.

Prime-time cable television viewers saw him kill on C-SPAN Thursday night (a live standup routine, in white tie and tails, opposite rival comic Mitt Romney during the Al Smith Memorial Dinner at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria) and then, shortly after 11 p.m., salt his talking points with quips across the table from Jon Stewart (a pre-taped visit to The Daily Show earlier in the afternoon).

Obama’s encounter with Stewart was far less adversarial than his previous visit right before the disastrous 2010 midterm elections, when the Comedy Central host mercilessly pressed him for not living up to liberal expectations of “hope and change.” And back then, when Obama suggested that economic adviser Larry Summers had done “a heckuva job,” Stewart chided the president: “You don’t want to use that phrase, dude.”

This time, Stewart treated the president with a lot more deference—Hail to the Chief was played as he was introduced—maybe because Obama could actually lose on Nov. 6. Though the host couldn’t resist teasing him about his dreary performance in the first debate. “Cute. Cute, Jon,” Obama said with a mirthless chuckle when Stewart showed him two post-debate photos of first lady Michelle—one frowning, the other grinning broadly—and asked him to clear up which photo came from which debate, the first or the second (when the president gave a better account of himself).

But then, there was surprisingly little hilarity as Stewart engaged Obama in a down-in-the-weeds discussion of, perish the thought, serious issues. They discussed housing starts, al Qaeda, the auto industry, solar and wind energy, the obstructionist Republicans, Guantanamo, and Obama’s relentlessly-repeated plan to raise taxes on “millionaires and billionaires.” Here Stewart took the opening to make a joke. “I’m sorry—that’s the first I’m hearing this. What’s that you’re saying about millionaires? What are you doing to us?”

Obama giggled like a cooperative straight man.

Even before Thursday night’s broadcast (with the afternoon distribution of the White House pool report), much was made in the conservative media—on the Drudge Report, for instance—of Obama’s observation that the murder of four Americans in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was “not optimal.” The implication was that the president coldly trivialized the tragedy, but the reality is that he was picking up on the same word, “optimal,” that Stewart used in a question, and the president’s expression was hardly cold; it was grave and pained.

Stewart ended the two-segment interview on a droll note, asking Obama how many emails his campaign operatives would have been sending the host during their 14-minute conversation. “That depends on whether you’ve maxed out,” the president quipped.

Both men were dressed like funeral directors, in dark suits, white shirts, and somber ties. Obama wore a pink wrist band on his right arm, marking Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And, it has to be said, the president’s close-cropped hair was appreciably grayer than last time. And he was not as charismatic and full of energy as “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” who showed up between segments in a Dos Equis beer commercial.

Obama seemed more on his game at the Waldorf, where he was working from a script of nicely honed jokes. The elite crowd—which, on the dais behind him, included Katie Couric, Chris Matthews, and Roger Ailes—laughed appreciatively at Romney’s remarks (which were rather clever, though they studiously avoided self-deprecation), and laughed even harder at the president’s.

Obama had no trouble making fun of himself—his lousy first-debate performance being chief among his targets—and at one point he noted about his opponent: “‘Mitt’ is his middle name ... I wish I could use my middle name.”

Who has the last laugh is yet to be seen.