Learning to Laugh

Conservatives should embrace the political power of comedy.

President Barack Obama smiles as he is asked a question during a news conference with French President Francois Hollande.

Republicans would do well to inject some humor into their politics.

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“Never make people laugh,” Thomas Corwin, an Ohio senator in the 1840s, instructed. “If you would succeed in life, you must be solemn, solemn as an ass. All the great monuments are built over solemn asses.”

Such was the advice, in updated language, that conservatives doled out to President Barack Obama last week after his appearance on "Between Two Ferns with Zack Galifianakis," a mock interview show hosted by the website Funny or Die. On Fox and Friends, Brian Kilmeade declared the appearance “inappropriate” and “pretty tragic.” Dan Senor, who advised both George W. Bush and the Romney campaign on foreign policy, found himself hankering for the days of Margaret Thatcher “asserting the dignity of her office.” And Fox News host Bill O’Reilly swept in with the most damning criticism of all: “Abe Lincoln would not have done it.”  

In all likelihood, the witticism-prone 16th president would have gladly nestled between a few potted plants to sell his signature policy initiative, emancipation. But that’s not the biggest mistake conservatives make when they criticize Obama for yukking it up with Galifianakis or slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon. Rather than castigating Obama for his comedy chops, they should be copying him.  

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Why? Well, for one, it seems to be effective. The video drove massive amounts of traffic to Healthcare.gov (which didn’t crash!). Some on the right discounted this success. Jonah Goldberg of National Review noted with disbelief that if the "Between Two Ferns" appearance was successful in signing people up for Obamacare, “it would mean that there are millions of young people out there who couldn’t be persuaded by billions of words in newspapers, magazines, State of the Union addresses, and news broadcasts, but they are persuaded by a hipster webcast comedy show.” He’s right to note Obamacare has been constantly debated on the Sunday shows. But how many 20-somethings do you know who are tuning into "This Week" and "Face the Nation"? The president has to meet his target audience where it is.

Second, proving their comedy cred is a crucial component of the conservative makeover. For a brief period after the 2012 election, the right seemed to recognize its old model wasn’t working. The persistent empathy gap made it nearly impossible for Republicans to win over the “coalition of the ascendant”: women, minorities and young people who turned out in large numbers for Obama. Comedy – good comedy – can help close the empathy gap. Humor makes candidates relatable, not only because we respond warmly to those who make us laugh, but because comedy relies on insight, on that moment when the audience recognizes the truth at the core of the joke.  

Encouraging right-wing whimsy raises a related question: Can conservatives do comedy? It is a perennial debate, often premised on the idea that conservatism and humor don’t mix. True, some conservative comedy shows have flopped. (Remember Fox News’s "The Half News Hour"? Neither does anyone else.) But essentialist arguments that insist conservatives can’t be funny are absurd. Sean McElwee dismantles the arguments pretty well at The Atlantic, noting that "Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn" and "Politically Incorrect" both featured a number of funny conservative commentators. And Ronald Reagan played entertainer in chief long before Obama, regularly demonstrating the ability of a well-timed joke to deflate opponents and promote policy.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Conservatives don’t lack a sense of humor. What they lack is a sense of how politically useful humor can be. In their race to attack Obama for "Between Two Ferns," conservatives missed the lesson the moment holds for them: either learn how to deliver a punch line, or end up being one.