President Obama is becoming the target of ridicule from an unlikely source—the comedy corps on television. Up to now, the joke writers and the TV talk show hosts had been very gentle in poking fun at Obama. But in the past couple of weeks, that has changed.
Saturday Night Live has been leading the way. In a now famous skit October 3 that featured actor Fred Armisen playing Obama, SNL made fun of the president for not accomplishing anything important so far. The fictitious Obama counted off some of his campaign promises—such as closing the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, fighting climate change, letting openly gay people serve in the military, withdrawing from Iraq, and reforming healthcare—and summarized his performance on each issue with the words "Not done."
On October 10, SNL took aim at Obama's winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Noting that the prize goes annually to "individuals who have made contributions to world peace," Armisen-as-Obama conceded, "Well, I won it for not being George Bush. . . . This award came as a complete surprise because I have only not been George Bush for nine months."
Last Saturday, SNL needled Obama for his unemotional style. The skit had Obama telling an aide, "You know, I don't get angry. I find it works better to kill them with kindness." Then, during a meeting with recalcitrant senators, he loses his cool and transforms into a figure like the "Incredible Hulk"—dubbed "The Rock Obama"—played by former pro-wrestler Dwayne Johnson, and throws a legislator out a window.
On the popular Daily Show, Jon Stewart got into the act by referring to Obama's lack of accomplishments and advising the president, "All that stuff you've been putting on your plate? It's [expletive] chow time, brother. That's how you get things off your plate."
And Jay Leno wisecracked that it's not surprising that Obama is taking a long time to decide what to do next in Afghanistan. "Remember," Leno said, "it took five months to decide on a puppy." Later, Leno said, "President Obama won another Nobel Prize today, this time in medicine, for pretending to give up smoking." And in the past few days, Leno joked, "A new study shows that the phrase most often used by President Obama is, 'Let me be clear.' The phrase he uses the least often? 'Let me be specific.'"
Conan O'Brien quipped, "The Nobel Committee is saying the reason they gave Obama the peace prize is for reducing tension around the world. . . . So, the runners-up for this year's Nobel Prize were red wine and the Brookstone three-speed massaging recliner."
Humor is the great leveler, and once a public figure becomes the butt of jokes and the target of ridicule in popular culture, the stereotype can be devastating and hard to erase. There have been many examples over the years.
SNL did lasting harm to Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008 with Tina Fey's hilarious portrayal of her as a pretty airhead from the frozen north. In past seasons, Will Ferrell gave a biting impression of George W. Bush as an ignorant goofball. Dana Carvey hurt George H. W. Bush's image as a serious leader by playing him as an inarticulate lightweight. Darrell Hammond's Bill Clinton was a sly libertine. Perhaps most damaging of all was Chevy Chase's portrayal of Gerald Ford as an inept but well-meaning bumbler who couldn't walk into a room without striking his head or tripping over the furniture.
A generation ago, Johnny Carson set the standard for political humor during his long-running late-night talk show. Carson had a knack for knowing just how much ridicule the public would tolerate and what kind of mockery would resonate with the country. As always with good satire, there was an element of truth in what he said. For example, he underscored Ronald Reagan's reputation for allowing his staff members to fight among themselves, and at one point, Carson compared the Reagan administration to the Three Stooges. "There is a power struggle going on between President Reagan's advisers," Carson joked. ". . . Moe and Curly are out; Larry is still in."
And Carson had some choice words for Richard Nixon, deepening the image of "Tricky Dick" as a lawbreaker. "Did you know," Carson asked, "Richard Nixon is the only president whose formal portrait was painted by a police sketch artist?"
Using humor to take politicians down a peg or two is a very old form of comedy. Eighty years ago, humorist Will Rogers told jokes at the expense of the presidents of his day, especially Herbert Hoover and his rich supporters during the Depression. Hoover believed that money given to the rich would "trickle down" to the poor, Rogers said, adding that Hoover was an engineer who knew that water flowed downhill, "but he didn't know that money trickled up. Give it to the people at the bottom, and the people at the top will have it before night anyhow. But it will at least have passed through the poor fellow's hands."
Now President Obama is in the comedians' sights. And there's a good chance that, to the president and his advisers, it's no laughing matter.