The war on humor

What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?

Will the advent of the decidedly unfunny Barack Obama destroy This Modern World?

Will the advent of the decidedly unfunny Barack Obama destroy This Modern World?

It’s one of the most talked-about, most written-about subjects of the presidential transition period. It’s been argued in editorials, political cartoons and Internet screeds. The victims of this scandal, it’s said, may become insane, overworked or unemployed.

The looming crisis: Barack Obama isn’t very funny.

Oh, he’s jovial enough and can deliver a quip when required, at least as well as any of the other guys who’ve held the prez gig. He handled himself well at the Al Smith dinner last fall, self-deprecatingly knocking himself for acting Christlike or Supermanly. On the eve of his inauguration, painting walls at a Habitat for Humanity dwelling, Obama joshed that this was good practice as he was moving into a new house the next day.

But that Martin Luther King Jr. Day event also emphasized the critics’ worst fears: Sure, he can make fun of himself, but how easy is it for anyone else to mock a guy who’s out helping the homeless the day before one of the most jampacked weeks of his life? Where’s the opening for humor there?

A president who takes too many vacations or mangles speeches or starts international conflicts when he’s barely traveled out of the country—that’s a guy ripe for the plucking. But Obama’s “no drama” persona translates to “no huma” as well.

The cartoon-Teflon concern is hardly a new one: Jokesters have had two years (and Illinois newsies even longer) to come up with Barack characteristics they can exaggerate and crack wise about. All they’ve located so far is his ears.

Among those marking last week’s Inauguration was Connecticut-based Zippy the Pinhead creator Bill Griffith, who has the advantage of working in a dadaist style that forgoes traditional punch lines. The Inauguration Day Zippy strip had two young pinheads simply making fun of Obama’s name, singing “Obama-lama-ding-dong.”

“What’s so funny about Barack Obama is the same thing that’s so funny about steel-belted radial tires; their inherent unfunniness,” writes Griffith in an e-mail from his East Haddam studio. “In Zippy’s hometown of Dingburg, the city inhabited entirely by pinheads 17 miles west of Baltimore (and not far from D.C.), the funniest thing in the world is high seriousness.”

George W. Bush and Obama have insinuated themselves into Zippy’s Dingburg. By contrast, David Rees’ Get Your War On wouldn’t have existed without them. The weekly excoriation of Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began online and immediately gained a following among the vocal majority opposed to the wars. GYWO ended up in numerous alternative weekly papers (the Hartford Advocate among them) and most prominently in Rolling Stone magazine.

Obama’s victory has resulted in Rees’ long-held promise to retire Get Your War On once Bush left office. In an e-mail interview last week, he confirms not only that GYWO is no more, but that “I was going to quit the strip in 2004 if Kerry won. I did get tired of making jokes about torture and botched humanitarian reconstruction. Not sure what’s next … I guess I’ll live off credit cards and rent out space in my house to foreign travelers.”

He says the decision has been greeted with “indifference, although I have received some nice ‘Thank you for GYWO’ messages.”

Rees isn’t yet inspired to do Obama jokes, either. “I need to take a break from political satire. I’d like to try other kinds of humor first.” But he says, “I think it’ll be interesting to watch hard-core lefty cartoonists make sense of the Obama administration. I see Ted Rall is complaining that Obama literally didn’t shut down Guantanamo on Day One.”

Rees chronicled Bush’s incompetence for seven long years, but he’s a newbie compared to Dan Perkins. For more than 20 years, under the nom de toon “Tom Tomorrow,” the New Haven–based Perkins has written and drawn This Modern World, a weekly strip he syndicates to this newspaper and more than 100 others.

Perkins says in a recent phone interview that he’s been receiving e-mails from conservatives snarkily saying, “I hope you’re going to be as hard on Obama as you were on Bush.” To which he responds, “Of course not. Bush was a fucking moron, a moral criminal. I used to take pride in not doing cartoons about the politics of the moment, but with Bush I’ve been chained to this, every week, because it’s been so fucking outrageous. I’m feeling immense relief, giddy exhaustion.”

Perkins adds, “With Obama, there’s not anything to make fun of that’s immediately apparent. Where the humor may turn out to be is how crazy he drives his detractors. I’ve been listening to [right-wing] talk radio, and their heads are about to explode.

“But I’m sure there’ll be plenty of missteps. I remain appropriately cynical of any politician.” Moreover, Perkins exclaims, “I reject the inherent supposition that my only job is to make fun of the occupant of the White House.” He’s just been working on a strip that “I don’t know if you’d call it critical of Obama, but it says that after all we’ve been through in the past eight years, we should really go through an intensive self-examination, so it doesn’t happen again. But what we will probably do is shrug and move on.”

Which takes us to one of the most widely seen comic images of Barack Obama on Inauguration week, the legendary caricaturist Drew Friedman’s cover illustration for The New Yorker magazine, which depicted Obama in a dour demeanor and George Washington frippery. In an e-mail, Friedman ponders the impact of his drawing and looks to what the future holds for those who find politics funny:

“These of course are serious times (were there times that were not so serious?), which is what I tried to reflect in my New Yorker cover depicting a stern, determined Obama, ready for the job. But whenever you have a group of public people in the constant spotlight, the opportunities for potential humor are considerable, and this new group is, I’m sure, no different than the past. Already, Obama and his nagging cigarette habit pose abundant potential humor, as does Michelle’s ‘wardrobes,’ the ‘mother-in-law’ jokes, the always clowning ‘Dick Martin (of “Rowan & Martin” fame) look-a-like’ Joe Biden, Wacky Rahm Emanuel and of course that ‘evergreen’ Hillary Clinton, and her hubby. Humorists have no need to worry.”

Cartoonists, all is not lost. Pick your pens up, dust your pads off and begin again.