Jokes are funny. At their heart, there is a premise, a sort of pivot. You can tell two jokes about the same subject, using the same premise, but with very different impacts. One joke can be warmly funny, the other scathing. Put another way, there are harmless jokes and there are mean jokes, the direction is up to the joke teller.
By way of example, there were many jokes about the USS John McCain being ordered to intercept a North Korean vessel. The premise, or pivot, was to compare the ship to the man and his recent unsuccessful bid for the White House or some other event in his long and distinguished career.
The meanest possible joke (and one I won’t repeat) involves Senator McCain’s experience as a prisoner of war. A less mean joke is one that mocks Mr. McCain in the same way that President Obama did during the campaign, to wit: “USS John McCain moved to intercept N. Korea ship; Obama says John McCain is erratic, losing bearings & computer illiterate.” A more benign joke, using the pivot to turn the joke on Obama, is “USS John McCain sent to North Korea. USS Barack Obama still rudderless off Iran.” Finally, in the class of most benign jokes, is “USS John McCain initiates talks with N. Korean ship – addresses ship as ‘My Friends.’”
The jokes range from patently offensive to ones which you could (probably) tell to Mr. McCain himself without fear of embarrassment. The craft in telling political jokes, especially for public consumption, is telling jokes that are funny (i.e., discover a unique pivot) and that also provide a political bias.
At last night’s Radio and Television Correspondent’s dinner, Mr. Obama broke out the benign jokes for most of the media, but unleashed the mean funny on what little conservative media there is. This is not surprising. Mr. Obama is becoming infamous for intimidating and threatening those with whom he disagrees.
For example, last night, Mr. Obama singled out Mika Brzezinski, who co-hosts Morning Joe with former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough. The pivot, Obama’s “co-host”, Joe Biden, shares the same first name. The joke (at 3:10 in the first video below):
“Mika and I have a lot in common. We both have partners named Joe who used to be in Congress and don’t know when to stop talking.”
The President is telling a critic to shut up. This is particularly ridiculous given that Morning Joe is on MSNBC, a network that is more pro-Obama than Robert Gibbs. He could have said “We both work with guys named Joe, who used to work in Congress. Of course, one of them is scrappy fighter with tough, well reasoned opinions that millions of people look to for guidance . . . the other one is Biden.” Self-depricating humor is always funnier than sarcasm.
Later, Obama jokes about the American Medical Association, saying that he has their support on health care after they had publicly criticized his plan. (Unless I’ve missed a press release, he’s telling a fib here.) The pivot of the joke is to connect the adage about attracting flies with honey with his recent swatting of a fly during an interview with CNBC (at 8:53):
“It proves true the old expression that it’s easier to catch flies with honey. And if honey doesn’t work, feel free to use an open palm and a swift downward movement [smacks his own hand.]”
The message is clear, disagree with me, and I will, literally, smack you down. You may say there is no another way to play that pivot, if so, then don’t. An American President threatening retribution for someone exercising their right to free speech is not worth a laugh line. But I disagree. Assuming the pivot is worth saving, what about: “It proves true the old express that it’s easier to catch flies with honey. Of course, some flies aren’t so lucky. CNBC is coming back next week, so I’m working on my chopstick skills.” The point is to make the joke about a fly, not a warning to people who might criticize Obama.
But Obama wants to go mean. His liberal friends get the soft glove treatment. Those who fawn over him, even bow and curtsy, get hazed like fraternity brothers. He jokes about Chuck Todd’s facial hair, and about Brian Williams clogging a toilet and stealing towels. The thrusts of his jokes are “hey, we can all laugh at each other, we’re buds.” Those who oppose him, though, get the mean jokes. For them, the point of his barbs is, “shut the hell up.” A psychologist would say he is being passive aggressive. That is not presidential. It’s not even manly.