Presidential Funnies

The Daily Show President: Obama's Edgy Humor

Obama’s approval numbers may be not so great, but his funny bone is well-honed, and different from his predecessors’.

Larry Downing/Reuters

While President Obama’s approval ratings may be in the tank, there’s still one arena in which he’s riding high: His use of comedy to taunt and undermine his political foes. There has simply never been a president better at that.

Obama has been at it again the last few weeks, taking his act on the road to comically skewer the climate change deniers. Just this week we saw Obama mock them at the League of Conservation Voters. There, Obama slammed Republicans who refuse to give an answer on whether mad-made climate change is real with comments like, “I’m not a scientist.” Obama said: “I’m not a doctor either, but if a bunch of doctors tell me that tobacco can cause lung cancer, then I’ll say, ‘OK.’”

You can check out the comedic highlights of Obama’s “climate denier” comedy tour in the embedded video. We cut together Obama telling the same jokes to different crowds, akin to a comedian on a multi-city tour.

Obama is hardly the first president to tell jokes, of course. But his style, I would argue, is different from all of those who preceded him. Call it Daily Show humor. Obama is a product of The Daily Show influence on our view of political comedy. Jon Stewart took over that show in 1999. That means Obama is the first president elected who was exposed to The Daily Show and its style for many years before taking office.

I would quote some of the other jokes on the climate denier tour, but, to be honest, they aren’t that funny on paper. But that fact merely supports my view that Obama is The Daily Show President. These other jokes get big laughs because Obama sells them. He uses his comedic timing and emotional commitment to the words to make these jokes work. It’s similar to the way Jon Stewart sells his jokes—also often not that funny on paper, but communicated by the host with the timing, tone, and physical cues that have become his trademark.

Unlike past presidents, who typically gave us self-deprecating jokes, Obama uses comedy as a weapon. I wrote about this right before May’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner, when I laid out numerous examples of Obama’s jokes that are strikingly different from his predecessors’.

Sure, some former presidents would tell jokes at the expense of political opponents, but in general we would see these in the context of their election campaigns.

Often those jokes were along the lines of long, good-natured comedic stories.

Ronald Reagan was especially great at doing just that. Here’s a Reagan joke that typifies his style: “When a farmer heard a candidate was a Republican, his jaw dropped. He told the Republican: ‘You have to wait right here till I go get Ma, she’s never seen a Republican.’ The candidate then looked around for a podium to give a speech on, but the only thing he could find was a pile of that stuff that Bess Truman used to call ‘fertilizer.’ So the candidate stood up on the fertilizer mound and gave his speech. Afterwards, the farmer said, ‘That’s the first time I ever heard a Republican speech’. The candidate responded ‘That’s the first time I’ve ever given a Republican speech on a Democratic platform.’”

Obama doesn’t tell cute stories that chide his rivals in the abstract. Instead, Obama, like Jon Stewart, uses jokes that slice and dice his targets by name. For example, at the 2013 WHCD pointedly ridiculed his nemesis Mitch McConnell: “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?!”

And at the 2014 WHCD, Obama unleashed this comedic dagger at his soon to be former GOP House foe: “Just yesterday, I read a heartbreaking letter …this one got to me. A Virginia man who’s been stuck in the same part-time job for years; no respect from his boss; no chance to get ahead. I really wish Eric Cantor would stop writing me. You can just pick up the phone, Eric.”

Obama’s weaponized comedy style hasn’t gone unnoticed by the right. After this year’s WHCD, some right-wing media outlets whined about Obama’s comedy being “mean spirited.” They wanted Obama to tell self-deprecating jokes. And he does tell them, but not exclusively, and pointedly so: He surely knows that his mere existence as president drives certain people nuts, and he clearly likes to stick the needle in.

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So getting back to Obama’s climate denier jokes, the question many ask us is: Do they actually matter? These jokes won’t cause the climate deniers or their supporters to change their views. (Nothing will change these ideologues’ minds except maybe a personal call from Jesus, and even then I’m not sure.) The hope is that the jokes will reach those undecided on the issue. Many aren’t informed about climate change. But Obama’s joke that 97 percent of scientists agree that climate change is a real threat to our planet and that we are to a large extent causing this possible calamity both informs people about the scientific support for his view and entertains people.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Obama use even more comedy as he pushes for his agenda in the final two plus years of his term. It makes perfect sense. Obama’s got great comedic timing, his jokes are effective at exposing the folly of his opponents’ arguments, and it pisses off conservatives. It’s a win-win-win all the way around.