Did Obama Kill Funny?

I think he did, but not for the same reason Eugene Robinson does:

[Don Rickles] was absolutely killing the audience on David Letterman’s show the other night with his trademark scorched-earth put-downs. Rickles seemed at the top of his game — until he tried to tell a joke about the new president-elect. Not even a well-timed rimshot from the band could have saved him.

It was just a quick bit in which he imagined Obama, faced with his first international crisis, telling his advisers he couldn’t be interrupted because he was busy playing basketball. The joke bombed.

Rickles’s attempts to save the gag only made things worse, and he quickly moved on after pointing out that it was just a basketball joke “that I should have never done.”

As I said, poor Don Rickles. After all, he practically invented the in-your-face, politically incorrect style of humor that is so many comedians’ meal tickets these days. It must have been galling to have to sheepishly disavow a joke that was so inoffensive compared with the rest of his oeuvre.

This is a really bad way to understand comedy, especially raunch, because it understands “offensive” to be the same as “funny.” The problem with Rickles’s joke isn’t that it was insufficiently offensive, or that it was too offensive, it’s that it just wasn’t funny. The entire thing is just based on the idea that people will laugh at any stereotype, regardless of whether there’s anything of comedic value in the joke or not.

Now, I say Obama killed funny not because I don’t think you can make jokes about stereotypes, Chris Rock,  Jeffrey Ross, Carlos Mencia, and basically any good comedian prove that you can. Rather, I think the problem with Obama, at least to start, is that there’s just no obvious point to base jokes on. With Bush it was that he was an idiot, Clinton had his sexual appetite, and Dana Carvey immoralized a certain awkwardness to Bush 41. These were assumptions about the Presidents as people that were etched into the way people thought of them, and so jokes about them appealed to a certain understood assumption in the audience. You didn’t have to come right out and say “Bill Clinton couldn’t get the phone because he was getting a blow job,” or in referring to our “first retarded President,” you don’t actually have to say “it’s George W. Bush,” you could make more subtle references to it that an informed audience will pick up on, and that makes the funny. With Obama there just isn’t any obvious personality trait or personal tic apparent yet to glom onto like that, and that’s why it’s hard to come up with Obama jokes at the moment.