Where's the funny in Barack Obama?
That question, which dogged TV humorists throughout the presidential race, has gained new urgency now that Obama is headed for the White House.
His victory last week signaled imminent hardship for comics who lampoon political leaders for a living. The laugh-a-minute 2008 campaign is history, and soon there'll be no President Bush to kick around in comedy sketches or talk-show monologues.
Adding to the jesters' plight: Obama will soon be sworn in as the next Punch-Line-In-Chief.
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Here is a man who inspires admiration, excitement or, maybe, suspicion. What he doesn't inspire (in any measurable quantity, so far) are cheap laughs.
“A dignified, thoughtful, charismatic, smart man who doesn't run at the mouth,” summed up Craig Ferguson, host of CBS' “Late Late Show,” in the aftermath of eight go-go Bush years for comics. “Is it a challenge to our creative juices to find something funny about Obama? God, yes!”
Right after the election, some TV wags were waxing nostalgic, however tongue-in-cheek.
On Comedy Central's “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart said he was already missing the Bush administration – and his own George W. Bush impression, which had served him so well at the anchor desk.
“As a comedian,” NBC's Jay Leno echoed to his “Tonight Show” audience, “I'm going to miss President Bush. Barack Obama is not easy to do jokes about. He doesn't give you a lot to go on. See, this is why God gave us (Vice President-elect) Joe Biden.
“When one door closes, another one opens up.”
True, as a six-term U.S. Senator and lately as Obama's running mate, Biden has cemented his reputation for blurting out remarks before they're vetted by his brain. (Item: Biden declared that “Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television” to address the nation when the stock market crashed in October 1929 – even though Herbert Hoover was president then and TV was barely invented.)
“He's a little more gregarious, runs around and slaps people on the back, he's cheery-looking,” said Ferguson, who agreed that Biden is the comics' consolation prize. “You can at least put him in a sketch.”
Ferguson proposed poking fun at Obama's “deification” by his more fervent supporters. It's no long-term solution for comedians, but it might buy them some time.
Obama's do-no-wrong aura is sure to be short-lived, as Americans observe him no longer full-tilt on the campaign trail but instead slogging through each presidential workday.
And humor springs from increased familiarity with the target of the jokes.
“In time, that will happen,” said “Saturday Night Live” cast member Fred Armisen, who last February scored the show's plum role impersonating Obama – “in time, not just with me, as we see more and more of him.”