What’s so funny about Barack Obama?

This week’s New Yorker attempted to lampoon all the right-wing myths about the looming specter of an Obama presidency with its cover by artist Barry Blitt. They managed to piss off the Obama campaign, right-wing pundits and the Republican Party, and satirists across the country. To the Obama people, the cover was a “tasteless and offensive” reproduction of the smears they’ve suffered for over a year. To sensitive right-wingers the problem was the truthful accusation that they peddle ridiculous lies. And for comedians, the problem was that the cover just wasn’t funny, that it wasn’t real satire.

I’m not a comedian, but I’m casting my lot in with them. The Obama camp’s whining was both unjustified and likely self-damaging. And the Right has no right to complain when shown up for their worst cultural infusions. Instead, the problem with the cover was just that it didn’t go far enough, failing to make an original joke. Blogger Atrios explains the problems well:

It obviously was an attempt at satire, but it fails. It represents the basic stuff that you get from the Right about Obama, but it neither mocks nor exaggerates them. It’s a sad state of affairs that conservatives are hard to satirize or parody because they’re so insane, but that’s where we are. The only context is that it’s on the cover of the New Yorker and Everybody Knows That They’re Good Liberals So It’s Satire. But, look, whatever the merits of the New Yorker it’s more “elite chattering classes of New York” than “good liberal.” Not quite the same thing, even if there’s some overlap.

The New Yorker cover could have worked if had made more clear who it was satirizing (Fox news, the Republican party, Rush Limbaugh, whatever), or by being clever enough to provide the actual funny. As it is it’s just a reflection of the Right’s view of Obama, but there’s nothing clever or funny about it. The cartoon could run as is on the cover of the National Review, also meaning to be “funny” but with a different target.

All of this doesn’t make the New Yorker public enemy #1, just makes them idiots of the week.

The cultural issues that the cover brings up (and the ensuing controversy) are real and important issues. So it’s fair to think seriously about them. But it’s stupid to pretend that, coming from the New Yorker, there’s even the slightest chance this wasn’t meant to be satire. As satire, and given its subject matter, only two people in the country have a right to be offended by the picture: Barack and Michelle Obama. They can fairly say it was unfair to them to be reminded, even humorously, of the repeated attacks on their characters, backgrounds, and family. And, incidentally, Obama told Larry King he wasn’t too hurt by it. So it would be right for everyone else to get over it. Supporters of Obama and citizens interested in the wellbeing of the country suffered no slight from this cover. It did them–us–no true harm.

At the same time, it’s weak to simply accept editor David Remnick’s defense of the cover, which fails to apologize for an unfunny cartoon:

Obviously I wouldn’t have run a cover just to get attention — I ran the cover because I thought it had something to say. What I think it does is hold up a mirror to the prejudice and dark imaginings about Barack Obama’s — both Obamas’ — past, and their politics. I can’t speak for anyone else’s interpretations, all I can say is that it combines a number of images that have been propagated, not by everyone on the right but by some, about Obama’s supposed “lack of patriotism” or his being “soft on terrorism” or the idiotic notion that somehow Michelle Obama is the second coming of the Weathermen or most violent Black Panthers. That somehow all this is going to come to the Oval Office.

The idea that we would publish a cover saying these things literally, I think, is just not in the vocabulary of what we do and who we are… We’ve run many many satirical political covers. Ask the Bush administration how many.

The magazine failed only its goal of humor, so the fuss about malice and offense should end, while the quest for a good humor about Obama should continue. An article in today’s New York Times explains that professional comedians have had trouble making fun of Obama. Why? He’s not a buffoon. (See: Bush, George W.) He’s not stiff and distant. (See: Gore and Kerry.) He’s not a philanderer. (See: Clinton, Bill.) He’s not old. (See: Dole and McCain.) And on top of all his good qualities, he’s also black, so white people have to be really careful when they want to joke about him.

There’s a problem to all of this that’s partly about the comedians in our country and partly about everyone else. We’re not a nation that’s overly sensitive; if anything, we’re undersensitive to truly offensive humor of so many types. How many people still remember the horrendously sexist attacks veiled as “humor” that Hillary Clinton suffered throughout her primary campaign? It’s a good thing that as least racial humor has moved beyond acceptable territory for humor, even if that deprives late-night comedians with their easiest material.

Which brings up the second problem: for too long, the majority of political humor in the mainstream media has been simple, stupid, and superficial–the easiest stuff. For at least two decades, the jokes about our presidents and presidential candidates have relied on them sounding dumb or stiff, having affairs, or being too old. The brilliance of shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report is that they break this mold. Their humor is not generated by embarrassing soundbites or worn narratives about personal qualities. Instead, they use events that matter to point out humor in the ongoing political saga. And they’re really funny.

So, for as long as anyone cares about this New Yorker cover, and as long as comedians are looking for a way to make fun of Senator or President Obama, here’s the challenge: come up with something substantive and relevant about the guy that’s actually funny. It’s not impossible. It’ll just take talented comedians. Good thing you guys are professionals, right?

Need some help? Why don’t you start by digging into the story of the guy who’s running as the candidate of change, yet who has managed to always use the existing political and economic structure to his own advantage. Need some simple, digestable themes? See: hypocrisy, opportunism, the ever-dirty game of politics. There’s got to be something there.

Update, 7/16/08: The Nation weighs in, verbally and visually. And David Horsey at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer imagines the flipside.

Update, 7/17/08: Omnibus addition of further interesting and funny links: The Borowitz Report shares a list of jokes the Obama campaign has released about the candidate (link my change; I’ll try to fix it). Best ones:

A traveling salesman knocks on the door of a farmhouse, and much to his surprise, Barack Obama answers the door. The salesman says, “I was expecting the farmer’s daughter.” Barack Obama replies, “She’s not here. The farm was foreclosed on because of subprime loans that are making a mockery of the American Dream.” 

A Christian, a Jew and Barack Obama are in a rowboat in the middle of the ocean. Barack Obama says, “This joke isn’t going to work because there’s no Muslim in this boat.” 

Maybe the only time I will link to Maureen Dowd or speak of her without scorn. Funny and actually relevant column (I can’t believe I said that) on mocking Barack. Bonus points for quoting Stewart and Colbert. (Of course, since it had to come, Noam Scheiber of The New Republic calls Dowd out for not telling the whole truth.) … Marc Ambinder reminds us what outrage should be. … Michael Shaw of the amazing BAGnewsNotes points out what’s visually wrong in the cartoon. … Dayo Olapade at The Root looks at other Obama cartoons and discusses caricaturing black politicians.

And the best for last: Jon Stewart on the whole affair. Comedy Central’s should, as always, be the only opinion people turn to after these things. Can’t get better than the response Stewart says Obama should have released: “Barack Obama is in no way upset about the cartoon that depicts him as a Muslim extremist. Because you know who gets upset about cartoons? Muslim extremists! Of which Barack Obama is not. It’s just a f—ing cartoon!”

Now I need to go back to caring about other things.

2 thoughts on “What’s so funny about Barack Obama?

  1. The only reason that this Mr. & Mrs. Obama satire DOES have impact — and may very likely spread — is because like all good satire, or good humor for that matter, there’s more than a germ of truth in it. Otherwise, the satire would utterly roll off the Obamoids’ backs, having no impact.

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