This Saturday night, President Obama will kill! Kill with comedy, that is, at this year’s annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Simply put: Obama is the greatest president ever in terms of using comedy. I can already hear the (faux) outrage to my comment from the right, but objectively speaking, Obama has truly redefined the way presidents use comedy.
For starters, Obama has handled the WHCD far differently than past presidents. Typically, they would offer self-deprecating jokes, such as Ronald Reagan mocking his own age and Bill Clinton poking fun at himself for being “chunky.”
And George W. Bush, a man who should be inducted to the Comedy Hall of Fame for all the material he gave comedians, even stood side by side with a Bush impersonator at the 2006 WHCD where Bush mocked his struggles to speak English and for being intellectually challenged.
Obama has changed that. True, at the WHCDs in 2009 and 2010 he gave us the traditional fare of self-deprecating jokes and playfully mocking others, such as this quip: “In the next hundred days, I will learn to go off the prompter and Joe Biden will learn to stay on the prompter.”
But then in 2011 he weaponized comedy, slicing and dicing his political rivals in the same way a comedian deals with a heckler. Let’s call this WHCD Smackdown I. I can tell you from firsthand experience that there’s nothing more effective—and satisfying—than causing a room full of people to laugh at your opponents or their views. Sure it’s comedy, but the barbs have messages embedded in them.
For example at the 2011 dinner, Obama mocked Michele Bachmann, a leader of the birther movement, with the joke: “Michele Bachmann is here, though, I understand, and she is thinking about running for president, which is weird because I hear she was born in Canada…Yes, Michele, this is how it starts.” The joke’s goal is not only entertain, but to point out Bachmann’s propensity to simply make crap up and claim it’s real.
While Obama also skewered others that night, “Paul Ryan couldn’t be here tonight. His budget has no room for laughter,” he saved his biggest barrage for Donald Trump. This was a short time after Obama released his birth certificate and when Trump was feigning a run for president.
After mocking “The Donald’s” birther obsession, Obama moved on to Trump’s “qualifications” to be president: “We all know about your credentials and breadth of experience…in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice…you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil’ Jon or Meatloaf. You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night.”
Since the 2012 WHCD was held in the midst of the presidential campaign, Obama’s jokes were more playful and at his own expense.
But in 2013, Obama was fresh off his re-election victory and we saw “Smackdown II.” Obama had some great zingers at the expense of Ted Cruz, Fox News, and the GOP’s efforts to reach out to minorities.
Obama gave Mitch McConnell the comedic equivalent of a body slam with this line: “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? Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?!” Laughs and thunderous applause followed.
He even took aim at billionaire Sheldon Adelson: “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 to spend that kind of money…You could buy an island and call it “Nobama” for that kind of money.”
Obama’s unique use of comedy, however, is not limited to the WHCDs. He has also utilized comedy programs in a way that we never saw before. Sure, presidential candidates have appeared on late-night shows, but Obama did more. He continued as a sitting president to use comedic shows as a way to reach people who might never listen to a political speech.
For example, during the 2012 campaign he dropped by Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to “slow-jam the news” on the issue of student loans, which was a perfect match for Fallon’s young audience.
He also went on the Tonight Show and recently appeared on Funny or Die’s Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis to talk Obamacare as the sign up deadline was approaching. (I’ve appeared at many colleges in the last two months for events and I’ve often asked students how many had watched the Between Two Ferns video? About two-thirds responded, “yes.” But when I asked, “How many would’ve watched Obama give a speech about Obamacare?” only about two or three people raised their hand.)
At this Saturday’s night WHCD, expect to see “Smackdown III.” We will see Obama strategically and comically emasculate his political rivals. I’d also predict some jokes about Obama’s success reaching the Affordable Care Act’s sign-up goals and ridiculing Republicans in Congress for doing nothing this year other than standing up for a rancher who refused to pay grazing fees.
The presidential candidates thinking of running in 2016 might want to take notes Saturday night. You better learn how to tell more than speeches—you better know how to deliver some cutting one-liners if you ever want to play the big room.