Presidential Humor

Saturday night’s annual White House Correspondents’ dinner has provoked the standard commentaries about the insipidness/banality/sinisterness of the event, what with the press sucking up to the president and the highlighting of the thin line between politics and celebrity.   And then there’s the required assessments of the president’s talents as a stand-up comedian.

The most common theme this year is that President Obama was funnier than professional comic Jay Leno, who emceed the event.

The Daily Beast‘s Lloyd Grove titles his roundup “Obama Trounces Leno” and gives us some of Obama’s best jokes:

• “It’s been quite a year since I’ve spoken here last — lots of ups, lots of downs — except for my approval ratings, which have just gone down. ..But that’s politics. It doesn’t bother me. Beside I happen to know that my approval ratings are still very high in the country of my birth.

• “Obviously I’m most pleased that Michelle accompanied me. She doesn’t always go to these things. And there are few things in life that are harder to find and more important to keep than love—well, love and a birth certificate.

• “The Jonas Brothers are here … Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But, boys, don’t get any ideas. I have two words for you—predator drones. You will never see it coming. You think I’m joking.

• “I saw Michael Steele backstage when we were taking pictures—AKA Notorious GOP. Michael, who knows what truly plagues America today—taxation without representin’. My brother.

• “I’ve learned this year politics can be a tough business, but there are times where you just can’t help but laugh. You know what really tickles me? Eric Massa. Apparently Massa claimed that Rahm came up to him one day in the House locker room, stark naked, started screaming obscenities at him. To which I say, welcome to my world.”

Apparently, Leno’s humor was both less edgy and overlapped some of these themes.  Then again, Obama’s jokes were written by writers from The Daily Show; it’s not like he made the jokes up off the cuff.

Obama was indeed quite good.  But I actually can’t remember the last president who wasn’t in these circumstances.

George W. Bush was universally acknowledged as a less-than-stellar speaker but he was always terrific at this things, going back to his joint appearance with Al Gore at the Al Smith dinner towards the end of the 2000 campaign.  He was also every bit as good as Stephen Colbert in their joint appearance — and Colbert is simply a fantastic performer.

Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were both fantastic every time I saw them doing these bits.  But they were both natural performers.   But even George H.W. Bush, the most reserved and introverted president in my memory, was quite charming in these events.

The formula for presidential humor is to go heavy on self-deprecation and go affectionate when lampooning one’s adversaries.  Or, at least, pick the right adversaries if you’re going to deliver a real smackdown.

Now, perhaps Glenn Greenwald has something of a point with this scold via Twitter:

What was funnier: Bush’s WMD joke or Obama’s Predator drone joke?

Still, I gotta admit, I thought both were funny in context.

FILED UNDER: Humor, Media, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Triumph says:

    Obama’s escapade was disgusting.

    Sitting around making jokes while America is at war and the soldiers are risking they lives is just unacceptable.

    This was especially troubling since there was an attack underway in New York as he spoke.

    This guy showed his true colors. First he starts playing golf all the time, next he jokes while America is under attack from the evil ones.

    This anti-troop, anti-American mentality is typical liberal-ness.

  2. SoFedUp says:

    The difference between our thin-skinned current President and those that came before him is that they actually made fun of themselves. Not this narcissist-in-chief. All of his pot shots took aim at others. Another petty performance by a petty man.

  3. James Joyner says:


  4. Matt says:

    Oh yeah totally SoFedUp he totally didn’t take cracks at himself in the first joke James listed.. Total elitist thinskinned foriegnmuslimcrazywhateversblahblahblah..

  5. Brett says:

    It’s good to see that Obama can poke fun at those silly Birthers (although knowing them, they’ll probably take his first comment you listed, about the “country of his birth”, and spam their websites saying “SEE! SEE! He admits it!”).

    Still, I gotta admit, I thought both were funny in context.

    Yeah, but that’s Glenn. He’s pretty humorless – I wonder sometimes if he’s taken a shit since the invasion of Iraq.

  6. SoFedUp says:

    Matt, that was directed at the “birthers”, it was not a joke at his own expense. Go back to mixing your kool aid; we wouldn’t want you to run out in the next couple of years.

  7. anjin-san says:

    Another petty performance by a petty man.

    If there was no such thing as whining, would the right simply cease to exist?

  8. G.A.Phillips says:

    What no jokes about the Illegal racists from Mexico and their supporters marching up and down the streets of America ******* **** up by request of the president?

    Oh wait someone just pointed out that he don’t joke about himself because he ain’t no joke, sorry.