“You Think I’m Joking”: The Weaponized Comedy of President Obama’s Stand-up Addresses at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

This year, James Nixon was awarded an Honourable Mention for his entry to the BAAS Postgraduate Essay Prize. This piece is a shortened version of his entry. For more details about the Prize, please visit here.

President Obama performing his annual stand-up comedy address at the 2014 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Photo credit: Reuters.

 “In Washington there is no more serious business than being funny.”

– Political speechwriter Jeff Nussbaum[1]

“Obama Out.” As President Obama finished his last stand-up comedy address at the 2016 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, dropping the microphone to an ensuing mix of laughter and applause from the audience, a curtain fell on Obama’s considerable reshaping of this tradition.[2]  The annual presidential comedy address at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has become an increasingly popular aspect of American culture.  As Politico’s Ben Smith and Gabriel Beltrone commented ahead of the president’s comedy address in 2010, “When Obama delivers his second address to the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, he’ll do so at an event that’s evolved from a clubby roast into a crucial moment of presidential self-definition.”[3]  However, Obama has challenged the traditional makeup of the presidential stand-up comedy address by departing significantly from previous presidencies, with his performances at the Correspondents’ Dinner having become defined by a strategy of going on the offensive.  Examples include his comic tackling of the conspiracy surrounding his citizenship, Republican obstructionism, criticisms of Obamacare, his administration’s drone programme, his contentious relationship with the White House Press Corps, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.  In an energetic appraisal of this comic strategy, American stand-up comedian Dean Obeidallah predicted that President Obama would be sticking to this refined approach at the 2013 Correspondents’ Dinner.  Obeidallah  notes:

Barack Obama would make a great stand-up comic, not because he’s the funniest president ever but because he uses jokes the same way many of us comedians do: as a weapon.[4]

Obeidallah argues that President Obama has “weaponized comedy”, opting for a comic strategy far more politically advantageous.[5]  This comic approach however has been criticized by the likes of The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, who titled Obama “the Insult Comic President.”  In response to Obama’s stand-up comedy address at the 2010 Correspondents’ Dinner, Farhi commented that the president had broken with the “presidential punch line tradition” of predominantly inoffensive, self-deprecating comic material.  As Farhi argues, “Except for a mild joke pegged to his falling approval ratings, Obama mostly spared Obama during his 14-minute stand-up routine.”[6]

A 2010 billboard displayed in South Gate, California, questioning the validity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate and by extension his eligibility to serve as President of the U.S.

One noticeable, early example may be found in the president’s comic rebuttal of the citizenship conspiracy theory, popularly titled the “birther theory”.[7]  In an attempt to avoid tarnishing the dignity of traditional White House channels by discussing it with too much weight, official responses were largely dismissive, as exemplified by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs (2009-2011) describing it as “made-up, fictional nonsense”.[8]  Ahead of the 2011 Correspondents’ Dinner, and with the White House having that same week released President Obama’s long-form birth certificate in an attempt to finally debunk the theory, the subject was ripe for him to confront.  A clear divide between political and comic channels was spelt out by the White House in the lead up to the comedy address, this time by President Obama himself.  Just four days prior to the event, Obama reinforced Gibbs’ bemusement at even having to respond to the theory within the August setting of a White House Press Briefing stating, “We do not have time for this kind of silliness. We’ve got better stuff to do.  I’ve got better stuff to do.”[9]  However, the dynamic in which the birther theory could be engaged with by President  Obama changed considerably within the comic setting and suspension of the Correspondents’ Dinner, an arena which I believe was instrumental in the White House’s efforts to refute the theory’s legitimacy.  This is exemplified in the following joke presented at the 2011 Correspondents’ Dinner.  Remarking on the release of his long-form birth certificate, President Obama announces that he will put “all doubts to rest” over its authenticity.  “Tonight, for the first time, I am releasing my official birth video. (Laughter.)”  Noting that the video is so exclusive that not even he has viewed the video before, the president asks for the tape to be played:

 As the display screens present the “official birth video” to the Correspondents’ Dinner audience, it turns out to be the opening scene of Disney’s The Lion King (1993).

Rather than putting all doubts to rest, the “official birth video” joke he presents ends up “confirming” the birther theory’s advocacy of his African birthplace.  Comic examples such as this show the opportune dalliance between political and comic communications presented by the White House. Gibbs’ aforementioned, official rebuttal of the theory as “made-up, fictional nonsense” is complemented in a comic presentation comparing it to the fiction of an animated children’s movie.  The effectiveness of the joke relies, in part, on a comic “acceptance” of the birther theory, where the video confirms theories of the president’s resident’s African birthplace, reinforced in Obama’s tone of feign-disappointment at the end of the video when he remarks, “Oh well.  Back to square one.”[10]  The comic presentation further Drew Zahn of the right wing, pro-birther website World Net Daily responded to similar birther theory lampooning in Obama’s successive 2012 stand-up address by arguing that the president was actively inviting the Washington Press and Hollywood elites to join him in a joke against the American people by helping cover up his foreign birthplace.  However, these same notions of conspiracy between the White House and the press could be extended to the tongue-in-cheek admission and presumed cover-up of Obama’s African origin seen in the “official birth video”.[11]  Appearing to confess to the accuracy of the birther theory, and moreover,, suggest a subsequent cover-up,is testament to the uniqueness of the comic mode as a political tool.  In addition, it deflates the potential for a counter-argument to be made on the basis that the White House’s acknowledgement of the issue legitimises the theory by placing the response firmly within comical territory.  In this sense, President Obama’s mocking of the birther theory is effective in not just giving him a platform in which to address and satirise it, but in also immobilizing its key elements and aforementioned advocates.  If the birther theory was as incredible as Obama claimed, or as fictional and crazy as Gibbs argued, then directly engaging with it proved to be an effective way of addressing and countering it.  Essentially, I argue that if the birther theory was indeed comical, then the White House perhaps recognised that they had to embrace the comical to delegitimise it.

“Obama Out”: President Obama finishing his stand-up comedy address at the 2016 Correspondents’ Dinner Screencap from YouTube.

In Obeidallah’s previously cited appraisal of President Obama’s “weaponized comedy”, he acknowledged the effectiveness of addressing criticisms in a stand-up comedy setting, commenting that, “there’s nothing more effective- and satisfying- than causing a room full of people to laugh at your opponents or their views.”[12]  Obeidallah’s commentary resonates with particular aspects of humour theory, particularly with those of French philosopher Henri Bergson’s conservative theory of laughter, in which he argued that humour acts inherently as a form of social corrective to adversarial behaviour.  In President Obama’s mocking of the birther theory, I argue that he can be seen to be in part invoking aspects of Bergson’s corrective theory by ridiculing and trivialising it, utilising what Bergson argued was laughter’s major function to “intimidate by humiliating.”[13]  Obeidallah and Bergson’s analyses illustrate the power of humour to silence adversarial opinion, demonstrating its usefulness in critiquing and trivialising forms of political criticism and resistance.  They also allow room for more strategic readings of President Obama’s stand-up comedy addresses and his tackling of controversial issues through the comic mode.

 Footnotes

[1] Quoted in Green, Joshua, “Funny Business”, The Atlantic, Vol. 293, No. 4, May 2004, p.g 5. Web. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/05/funny-business/302934/.

[2]“’Obama out’: President Obama gets last laugh at ‘Nerd Prom’”, USA Today (Youtube Channel), May 1st 2016. Web. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRMEgMY3S5s. Last accessed on May 22nd 2016.

[3] Smith, Ben & Beltrone, Gabriel, “Prep and circumstance”, Politico, 30th April 2010, p.1, p.g 3, Web. http://www.politico.com/story/2010/04/prep-and-circumstance-036487?o=1. Last accessed on May 22nd 2016.

[4] Obeidallah, Dean, “How Obama has weaponized wit”, CNN, March 22nd 2013, p.g 1. Web. http://edition.cnn.com/2013/03/21/opinion/obeidallah-presidential-jokes/. Last accessed on May 22nd 2016.

[5] Obeidallah, “Obama Will Weaponize Comedy”, The Daily Beast, May 2nd 2014, p.g 6. Web. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/02/obama-will-weaponize-comedy-at-the-white-house-correspondents-dinner.html. Last accessed on May 22nd 2016.

[6] Farhi, Paul, “For Obama, a changed tone in presidential humor”, The Washington Post, May 3rd 2010, p.g 1-3. Web. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/02/AR2010050203125.html. Last accessed on May 22nd 2016

[7] Smith, Ben & Tau, Byron, “Birtherism: Where it all began”, Politico, April 22nd 2011. Web. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0411/53563.html. Last accessed on May 22nd 2016.

[8] “Press Briefing 7/27/09”, The Whitehouse, July 29th 2009, 29:10. Web. http://www.whitehouse.gov/video/White-House-Press-Briefing-7/27/09. Last accessed on May 22nd 2016.

[9] “Obama Releases His Birth Certificate”, ABC News, April 27th 2011, 4:26. Web. http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/video/obama-releases-birth-certificate-13468322. Last accessed on May 22nd 2016.

[10] “Obama Releases Birth Video at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner”, The Daily Conversation (Youtube Channel), May 1st 2011, 1:12. Web. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bqEn8AXzJ4. Last accessed on May 22nd 2016.

[11] Zahn comments in the masthead of his article that President Obama’s joke “invites reporters to join with him in joke on American people.” Zahn, Drew, “OBAMA: ‘I WAS BORN IN HAWAII,’ WINK, WINK”, World Net Daily, April 29th 2012. Web. Original article is now offline but a screenshot has been archived here:  https://archive.is/VvyNt.  Last accessed on May 22nd 2016.

[12] Obeidallah, “Obama Will Weaponize Comedy”, p.g 6.

[13]  Bergson, Henri, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, 1900, ch. 3, sec. 5, p.g 9. Paris: Revue de Paris. Print. Online version can be accessed on Gutenberg.org. Last accessed on May 22nd 2016. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4352/4352-h/4352-h.htm

 

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