What's So Funny About Joe Biden? Vice President Joe Biden is known for talking too much and for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time; the list of his gaffes and lame-o jokes is long and legendary. But is that always a bad thing?
NPR logo What's So Funny About Joe Biden?

What's So Funny About Joe Biden?

Juxtaposed against Joe Biden, Barack Obama appears so scripted.

Biden jokes about it himself. While giving the commencement address at the Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, Colo., on Wednesday, Biden noticed that one of his teleprompters had fallen. "What am I going to tell the president when I tell him his teleprompter is broken? What will he do then?"

The lame-o joke was a nod to the fact that Obama relies on electronic crutches and carefully crafted remarks, unlike Biden who can ramble and run on with no prompting at all. Conan O'Brien poked fun at the vice-president's unpredictable verbosity in O'Brien's premiere Tonight Show on Monday.

But there can be truth in humor — or lack of humor. And maybe even some method behind Biden's missteps.

Gaffes And Laughs

Because of the free-flowing way that Biden speaks, the list of his gaffes is long and legendary.

There was the time Biden made a hare-brained reference to then-candidate Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man." And the time he said that "you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I'm not joking."

That's the problem. With Biden — who is undeniably intelligent and affable — you are not always sure whether he is joking. And it's not clear that he is sure, either.

"The way I would put it," says Shawn Westfall, "is that Biden is trying too hard to be funny." A professional comedian, Westfall teaches comedy at the DC Improv, just a few blocks from the White House. The vice president, he says, "is telegraphing his jokes. There's expectation that there's going to be laughter. When the jokes don't deliver, there's a disappointment."

Biden doesn't always read the situation, Westfall says. "A comedian has to be sensitive to his audience."

And a funny person has to understand the architecture of a well-told joke. Biden isn't always sure "what a joke looks or sounds like," says Westfall. He suggests that Biden set aside his wonkish white papers every once in a while and listen to recordings of George Carlin routines.

As Biden's own communications chief, Jay Carney, once said, according to The Washington Post, Biden has said the wrong thing "throughout his career. ... He's smart, but he speaks — shoots from the hip and sometimes says just [the] wrong thing at the wrong time."

Try The Veal

Sift through the speeches and remarks of the vice president on the official White House Web site and you'll see the pattern in the patter.

On May 26, Biden spoke at a middle-class task force meeting in Denver. He introduced a 3-year-old as his special assistant. Then he alluded to Denver's "fervor and passion" for the Los Angeles Lakers. "Joke, joke, joke," he had to remind the crowd.

At the May 22 announcement in Beirut of the U.S. shipment of equipment to the Lebanese army, he opened his remarks by referring to the material. "Mr. Minister, general, it's a delight to be back in Lebanon, and thank you for the warm welcome," he said. "General, we're going to leave some of this behind, but you cannot take my plane. Air Force Two I get to keep, and the helicopters I get to keep. Other than that, the rest is going to be yours."

Rim shot. He'll be here four years, ladies and gentlemen. Please tip your waiter.

Obama: The Straight Man In This Routine

Or watch videos of the VP in action.

A solemn-faced President Obama is featured in a Jan. 21 clip in which Biden is charged with administering the oath of office to some senior staffers at the White House. This was the day after Chief Justice John Roberts stumbled while swearing in Obama.

As Biden took the podium at the White House, he said, "Am I doing this again?"

"For the senior staff," Obama said.

"For the senior staff? All right," Biden said.

Then he said, "My memory is not as good as Justice Roberts'."

The usually-quick-to-laugh Obama did not crack a smile.

How do you describe Biden's sense of humor? Clumsy? Quirky? Almost-funny?

The National Journal wrote that Biden is guilty of "dependably colossal gaffes" and called him the gaffster-in-chief.

Off The Cuff

When you are vice president, says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, "every word you utter is potentially important. You have to weigh everything you say. That's the exact opposite of being a United States senator. There's only one vice president, but there are 100 senators. Their business is talking. Nobody talked as much, or as good, as Joe Biden when he was a senator. He got used to freewheeling it."

Nowadays, that volubility and gaffishness could prove to be a political liability for President Obama. Or maybe not.

Could it be that Biden's freewheeling ways and scattershot humor make a disciplined and measured Obama look even more disciplined and measured by comparison?

"That's a very good point," says Sabato. "In that case, he's fulfilling the role of a vice president."

Sabato acknowledges a couple of other cases in which klutzy vice presidents — Gerald Ford and Dan Quayle — only raised the property value of their bosses. Ford, as president, was satirized by Saturday Night Live for his physical clumsiness.

And as for Quayle, Sabato says, "even people who hated George H.W. Bush prayed for the president's health."