I wasn’t going to bother with the whole Obama humor deficit thing, until I began wondering if anyone compared Obama humor to Lieberman humor.
It’s a useful compare and contrast. Like Obama, Leiberman as vice presidential candidate under Gore was breaking ethnic ground — the first in his ethnic group to be considered for so high an office. Like Obama, Lieberman had a squeaky-clean, even sanctimonious, reputation in 2000.
So why were there more Lieberman jokes? Could it suggest that America is more willing to mock Jews than blacks, and Jews are more accepting of such jokes? The short answer is yes. The long answer is — well, first consider what was funny about Lieberman the First Jewish Vice Presidential Candidate.
There were basically two, maybe three categories of Lieberman jokes. First there was a handful of old-style ethnic jokes, playing off of (fairly mild, but sometimes uncomfortable) Jewish stereotypes. A typical posting was a list of “Top 21 Results of Having a Jewish Vice President”:
4. International negotiations sound something like this: ‘All right, we’ll give it to you at cost. We’re literally losing money on it, but we want to hold on to a good customer.’”
28. U.S. never to pay retail again for nuclear warheads.
Cute. Offensive? Told among Jews, no big deal. Told by Leno, we can live with it. Could be uncomfortable if Pat Buchanan tells it, but not exactly blood-in-the-matza material.
Second were the insidery jokes, told by Jews themselves, who juxtaposed the worlds of observant Judaism and the Executive Branch. The list continues:
1. New scandalous headline: “President caught eating gebrokts .”
5. Announcement overheard frequently at White House: “Mincha in the main dining room in five minutes!”
Again, fairly harmless — and funny to about 740 people who happen to live on the Upper West Side.
These are the kinds of jokes Jon Stewart could tell, and he did. He told viewers that Lieberman “has promised to build that bridge to the 58th century” and will work for the American people “24/6.”
And he would also take the self-deprecating route, as when he told Larry King,
“Yes, this was a very smart and shrewd move by Gore to choose a Jewish vice president. We’re easily the most popular group in the country, and we’ll sway tons of voters.”
Now Obama. If late night talk show hosts were to use the first gambit above — the mild ethnic stereotype — they would keep wandering into dangerous territory. First, they’re all white. It is easy for Jon Stewart to tell Lieberman Jew jokes, because he is a Jew. And it’s easier for a non-Jew like Leno to tell Jew jokes because — well, Jewish stereotypes have lost their sting thanks to our community’s great economic, professional and academic success. Besides, the entertainment industry IS Jewish, in the sense that Jews are represented disproportionately not only on the creative side, but on the content side as well. Judaism and Jewishness is a convenient Hollywood stand-in for outsiderness — but not too far outside. Different, but not too different. Like Judd Hirsch in Independence Day. Like Fran Drescher in The Nanny. Like Lieberman in The White House.
But white hosts can’t play to this sort of tradition when it comes to ethnic jokes and blacks. Leno tries, with jokes like these:
“Hey, did you see [Barack Obama] playing basketball with our troops in Iraq? Did you see that one shot he made from 40 feet? 40 feet. Let me tell you something. If shooting baskets now is a requirement to be president, a white guy may never have that job again.”
You see what he did? He managed to find perhaps the least touchy stereotype about blacks and make a funny. But where else can he go? Chris Rock can riff on single-motherhood, black on black crime, and 100 other close-to-the-bone stereotypes about blacks, but Conan can’t. Not yet.
As for the juxtaposition jokes — again, the country is not relaxed enough, and blacks haven’t made the sort of economic or class progress, that let’s jokes about their folkways, language, and foods slip by harmlessly in a late night monologue.
Finally, there’s Obama himself. It is not that he is humorless. It’s that HE confounds black stereotypes. To joke that Joe Lieberman would serve gefilte fish at the White House works as a (not very funny) joke because you can imagine Lieberman as a typical older Jewish guy. But to say that 50 Cent will be Obama’s Secretary of Defense sounds false, because we sense that Obama isn’t “that kind” of black man. His background is too diverse, his education too “white,” for the black stereotypes to get much purchase.
None of this has to do with “political correctness.” It’s really about the authenticity of joke-telling — that a joke only works if it grounded in something we suspect or acknowledge as “true.” That Lieberman is “Jewy.” That Gore is stiff. That McCain is old.
Obama isn’t funny because a lot of Americans feel he isn’t black.