From the Los Angeles Times:
On his HBO show, “Real Time With Bill Maher,” the comedian routinely makes vicious fun of celebrities, politicians, presidents and even God. But he’s learned that, for much of his audience, Barack Obama is off limits.
Not long after the historic presidential election, Maher joked that Republicans were feeling particularly superstitious: “They say the country is having bad luck because there’s a black cat in the White House.” The studio audience erupted in loud groans and boos — a reaction, Maher observed in a recent interview, that exceeded his often scathing attacks on organized religion.
“Obama is the new God,” quipped Maher of the poorly received dig, which he pointed out pokes at conservatives more than the commander in chief.
The heckling response to Maher’s gibe is hardly an anomaly. As late-night talk show hosts and other television comics who trade in political humor know, cracking wise about the new president, who marked his 100th day in office last week, is apparently not very funny for most of the people, most of the time.
Obama has cast so many political humorists into a bad spot because he lacks the obvious defining qualities — both mentally and physically — that transformed previous Oval Office occupants into comedic catnip. He doesn’t have a strong regional accent and didn’t have a strange job before his political rise (former peanut farmer Jimmy Carter). He doesn’t fall down (Gerald Ford). He is not regarded as aging or forgetful (Ronald Reagan). He hasn’t been dubbed a “wimp” (George H.W. Bush). He is not tainted by scandal (Clinton). He doesn’t stumble over the English language (George W. Bush).
The 44th president’s elusiveness as a comic target is more than just superficial, however, and reveals deep national reluctance toward mocking a leader in crisis and toward discussing race. Much of humor’s punch derives from the humbling of the mighty, but that card has, for now, been greatly diminished in the wake of the financial meltdown.
Obama didn’t create the economic mess, and Americans see him earnestly struggling to clean it up.
But it’s Obama’s African American heritage more than any other single factor that has perhaps frozen comics’ pens and keyboards. Political humorists, most of whom are white, have never dealt with a black president and aren’t sure how their material will be received. Is an Obama joke truly aimed at the office and its policies, or is it merely a smokescreen for racial prejudice?
“You don’t want to appear racist,” said Buddy Winston, a former writer for the “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” “You can’t do the stereotypical thing. Someone who’s a Texan or an elite is much easier to attack.”
Black comedians encounter similar difficulties in crafting humor at the new president’s expense, said David Alan Grier, star of Comedy Central’s short-lived “Chocolate News.” “Some people in the black community see any sort of criticism of Obama as a betrayal,” said Grier. “But my thing is, it’s not a betrayal. It’s just jokes. That’s what comedy is.”
Meanwhile David Letterman, who regularly bashed Bush, has repeatedly praised the new president (“You gotta like this guy . . . by God, this guy is out there, doing stuff. He’s always got stuff going on”).
In fact, the CBS late-night host has used Obama to set up jabs at Bush. In one monologue, he noted Obama’s recent trip to South America, where his lack of knowledge of Spanish prevented him from reading a book presented to him by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: “It would be like handing George Bush any book.”
To be sure, Obama is not getting away scot-free. In recent weeks, “The Daily Show” has jabbed the president for the tax problems of his Cabinet nominees and his indulgent fondness for private White House performances from such artists as Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire.
It’s also important to remember that television audiences aren’t a scientific sample of the nation and might be distorting the true appetite for Obama humor, said Maher. He contends most of his TV audiences are “limousine liberals” who are overly sensitive, particularly about race. But he says when he’s on the road performing in arenas, jokes about Obama having a shark tank in the White House earn big laughs.
But in comedy, it’s all about timing. More than 100 days into the new administration, Ian Cameron, executive producer of ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” said that it may still be too early for Obama-based material to emerge.
“There also has been more of a track record with Bush, when there were eight years,” said Cameron. “A lot of comedians are still feeling their way. There’s still the ‘Obama walking on water’ jokes.”
Obama will fall into the water somehow, and when he does the comedians will be there, said Malcolm Kushner, a scholar of presidential humor who co-created the humor exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
“Everybody thought 9/11 would be the death of comedy, and it wasn’t,” he said. “It will happen.”
The irony, of course, is that, after 8 years, we finally have a president who would actually get the jokes!