Jest another day in Election 2008

Satirists toe the laughter line in sensitive times

We had a bet here in the office that the flap over the New Yorker’s now-infamous, incendiary and altogether satirical cover of Barack Obama and his wife in the Oval Office would blow over by midweek, as any flap seems to have done this election cycle.

Largely thanks to the candidate himself, the story lived, and I was on the losing side.

After the Obama campaign called the cover “tasteless and offensive,” the candidate went on Larry King’s program and tried to shrug it off, yet at the same time called it an “insult” to Muslims.

You could accuse the candidate of lacking a sense of humor — but we’ve also entered a treacherous time for comedy on the presidential campaign trail, when even the slightest over-the-top remark finds a constituency of souls not laughing.

The twist is that it’s not the candidates but comedians and satirists who are under scrutiny for what flies and what does not.

Last weekend, before introducing Obama at a fund-raiser in Chicago, Bernie Mac went into a slightly ribald version of his trademark routine, even using the word “ho” to describe women.

The reaction: wrong place, wrong crowd.

According to ABC News, one heckler shouted, “It’s not funny. Let’s get Barack on.” By the end of his speech, Obama gently suggested to Mac that you’ve “got to clean up your act.” Later, the campaign itself said the candidate didn’t condone Mac’s statements.

The response had echoes to a fund-raiser John Kerry held at Radio City Music Hall in July 2004, when Whoopi Goldberg used President Bush’s name in sexual wordplay. Slim-Fast dropped her as a spokeswoman because of the furor, in what seemed like a punchline itself.

If Mac’s comedy was just too much, comedians also have the opposite problem of too little.

Last week, the New York Times’ Bill Carter detailed the troubles that latenight writers are having in coming up with something funny to say about Obama. “We’re carrion birds,” Jon Stewart, the host of “The Daily Show,” told him. “We’re sitting up there saying, ‘Does he seem weak? Is he dehydrated yet? Let’s attack.'”

JibJab, the comedy website that created a sensation with its rousing 2004 “This Land Is Your Land” video of Bush and John Kerry, unveiled its John McCain and Obama entry last week, this time to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Although McCain was portrayed as a doddering warmonger and Obama as living in a fantasy world of pink unicorns, the more inspired humor was about Bush and Hillary Clinton.

JibJab also enters an incredibly crowded field of online satire, from the Onion to website 23/6, not to mention all of the renegade spoofs posted on YouTube. It’s more difficult to stand out these days.

As for the candidates themselves, they are well aware that, save for a burst of inspiration on the order of a Bob Hope quip, they’re better off steering clear of comedy. Just as Bob Dole and Al Gore did when they entered their general election contests, McCain has toned down his penchant for irreverence. It may be a drag to those covering him, hoping for the unpredictable, but quips are perhaps more trouble than they are worth.

There was a minor flap when McCain offhandedly called USC, his wife’s alma mater, the “University of Spoiled Children.” Last week, a 1986 Tucson Citizen article resurfaced in which McCain allegedly told a joke about an ape and a rape . The writer of the Citizen story told the Huffington Post, “I just think it reinforced this idea that John McCain is humor-challenged.”

But comedians shouldn’t get too depressed over this gulag for guffaws. History shows that while the jokes themselves may be genuinely funny, the campaigns are just too uptight to let you know they’re laughing, too.

Back in 1964, at a campaign event for Barry Goldwater at Knott’s Berry Farm, Walter Cronkite surveyed the crowd of rabid supporters and cracked to a fellow journalist, “You know, this isn’t Knott’s Berry Farm, this is Berry’s Nut Farm.”

Within earshot was Goldwater surrogate Reagan, who let out a very big laugh, according to Cronkite. Then the Gipper stopped himself.

“Wait a minute. That’s not so damned funny.”

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