Politics and Humor: Fun on the Stump
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Politicians want their speeches to be powerful, moving and bold but sometimes funny, too, whether scripted or ad-libbed, or for that matter, scripted ad-libs. But humor can also carry risks. NPR's Rob Sachs investigated just how political advisers try to ensure that their candidate is the one with the last laugh.
ROB SACHS: Though they have the name "West Wing Writers," the offices of this Washington, D.C. political consulting group don't really have the grandeur of the White House or Hollywood, for that matter, but they do live up to their name of being in the ear of some of the most powerful people in the country.
Jeff Nussbaum cut his chops writing speeches for Al Gore and Tom Daschle and is the team's go-to man on how to best insert humor into speeches. Over the years, he's seen a lot of candidates pay the price for a poorly timed ad-lib. Take John Kerry's quip during the 2004 presidential campaign.
Senator JOHN KERRY (Massachusetts): In our education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq.
SACHS: With so much damage coming from one bad joke, you would think political advisers are telling their candidates to leave the "funny" at home, but not so, says Nussbaum.
Mr. JEFF NUSSBAUM (Speechwriter): Well, we used to joke that whatever event you had, if someone gives you a hat, don't put it on, which is to say, avoid the silly picture. But at the same time, so many people want to feel a personal connection with the candidate that even those ridiculous moments sort of to humanize them.
SACHS: Hence, Barack Obama's dancing away with Ellen DeGeneres.
(Soundbite of "Ellen DeGeneres Show")
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): All right, beat Ellen. I'm dancing.
Ms. ELLEN DEGENERES: All right. All right.
Senator OBAMA: Hey.
SACHS: And John McCain's clips on "American Idol."
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): "American Idol" is a lot like a presidential primary election. Except for people who live in Michigan and Florida, their votes are actually count.
SACHS: But, Nussbaum says, quotes like this can be dangerous because you don't want to come across as mean. So he says the safest humor is self-deprecating.
Mr. NUSSBAUM: The ability to laugh at yourself, to take yourself down a notch, it really does an incredible job of humanizing you in front of your audience. It also, interestingly, is the way to show that you have greater confidence.
SACHS: For instance, President Bush's recent comments on the game show, "Deal or No Deal."
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
President GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm thrilled to be on "Deal or No Deal" with you tonight. Come to think of it, I'm thrilled to be anywhere with high ratings these days.
(Soundbite of audience laughter)
SACHS: As effective as humor may be, it can also be damaging when used against a politician. Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee used one-liners to take jabs at his opponents.
Former Governor MIKE HUCKABEE (Republican, Arkansas): We've had a Congress that spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop. And...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Former Governor HUCKABEE: It's high time that we have a different kind of tax structure, and the fair tax would get us there.
SACHS: But Nussbaum says not all politicians have to be comedians. They just have to know how to react when under a barrage of sarcasm, like, say, from a heckler.
Unidentified Man: No, you're going to jail, George. Do not pass Go. Do not collect 200 million dollars.
SACHS: What should you do?
Mr. NUSSBAUM: Ignore that that heckler is even there.
SACHS: That's the easiest approach. Let the security guards do their thing and move on. But there are other options, says Nussbaum.
Mr. NUSSBAUM: One is to acknowledge the right of the heckler to heckle. To say, you know, isn't that what's great about this country, that this person has the freedom of speech. The other example that you've seen both from Bill Clinton and Al Gore in the past is to tell whoever is heckling that whatever their issue is, they'll get a forum in the future, which is, I'm happy to discuss this with you after this event but we're here today to talk about X, to get them on message.
SACHS: The idea here is not to engage. And sometimes you can do that by being polite and sometimes being not so polite.
Former President BILL CLINTON: What do you want me to talk about?
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)
Former President CLINTON: A fraud? No, it wasn't a fraud. But I'll be glad to talk to you if you'll shut up let me talk now.
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
SACHS: It just goes to show that in politics, it's better to have people laughing with you than at you.
Mr. NUSSBAUM: Politics is a serious business and these are serious times for our country. But it was Eric Severide, the famous CBS reporter, who probably said it best, which is that next to power without honor, the most dangerous thing is power without humor. People want to know that you can smile.
SACHS: For NPR News, I'm Rob Sachs.