A Senator, a Judge, and a President Walk Into a Bar

Written by Dylan Preston.

There is nothing funny about politics.

Yet when many Americans look at the state of American politics, they mistake it for a joke. From Hillary Clinton’s email scandal to the Republican debates, American politics looks more like a traveling circus than political discourse. Humor is everywhere in politics–now more than ever with the media hunts for ratings. Former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett wrote a sitcom for NBC, and there is no bigger joke than a Trump presidential run. More often than not, we are laughing at politicians, rather than with them. This election cycle might look more like sketch comedy gone bad, but humor has appeared in politics for generations.

President Kennedy silenced the opposition with wit. When under fire for alleged nepotism for naming his brother United States Attorney General, he replied, “I see nothing wrong with giving Robert some legal experience as Attorney General before he goes out to practice law.”

More often than not, we are laughing at politicians, rather than with them.

Al Franken, A democratic senator from Minnesota, has made a career by being funny. He may be a politician these days, but Franken cut his teeth as a writer and standup comedian for Saturday Night Live. He came into his seat in 2008, winning by a margin of a little more than 300 votes, but six years later, he won reelection easily by 11 points. Being funny pays, and more importantly, it wins.

President Obama has fully understood the value of humor. He has made use of it in key speeches and appears just as at ease running through his standup routine at the correspondents’ dinner as he does addressing the nation on policy issues. The “Birther” issue–whether or not Obama was born in the United States–is a great example of President Obama using humor to dismiss other’s attacks.

At the White House Correspondents’ Obama announces that he will air his birth video, and signals to run the tape. The iconic scene in Disney’s Lion King plays. Laughter and applause follows; and several proponents of the Birther Movement in attendance were very uncomfortable.

From press interviews that seem like stand-up routines to Buzzfeed videos, Obama has used humor to his advantage. These tactics may have seemed lighthearted and playful, but the intention behind them is clear: Obama uses humor to highlight the ridiculousness of his opponents’ claims.

When politicians [miss punch lines], they come off as fake–stiff and simulating a human experience.

Humor, however, can be cruel. When stand-up comics miss punch lines or bomb a set, life goes on. One set leads to another. When politicians do the same, they come off as fake–stiff and simulating a human experience. A few bad jokes can kill a campaign.

Why in a world where a politician looks to deflect blame onto anyone but himself, would one isolate himself in the gamble of humor? Because it makes us laugh. When a comedian tells a joke and an audience laughs, they are connected for a brief moment.  The audience stays with the joke-teller, hanging on his every word, ready to stomp their feet, clap their hands, and laugh in a hilarious fit, facing the world in which they live. It’s why people love funny things.

Humor has been around in politics since politics incorporated the masses, but with the dawning of the Internet, the rise of social media, and the popularity of television shows such as The Colbert Report and The Daily Show, it is becoming increasingly important. In a place like the world of politics, a little laughter can go a long way. Humor can get people to the polls.

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