In 2012, at the intersection of comedy and politics, one is just as likely to find a punching bag as a punch line. Just ask Jimmy Kimmel, who headlines tonight’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
The ABC late-night host made the critical error Wednesday, telling Reuters that “it’s hard to make fun of Obama in general because he’s a cool character. Outside of his ears, there’s not a whole lot.”
Given that attitude, one assumes that much of the political humor at what has come to be known as Washington, D.C.’s annual “Nerd Prom” will be at the expense of — surprise! — Republicans (and conservatives)! Sure enough, in the same interview, Kimmel previewed six jokes about GOPers, including favorite whipping girl Sarah Palin (who didn’t run this year) and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (hardly a household name).
Ideology aside, Kimmel arguably broke a cardinal rule of comedy: There can be no sacred cows. If certain public figures are seen as “cool,” that should be all the more reason to double up and find ways to poke fun at them.
Besides, despite President Obama’s “slow-jamming” the news Tuesday night with Kimmel’s NBC late-night rival Jimmy Fallon, it’s hard to give the POTUS a pass on the “coolness” factor. Has Kimmel so soon forgotten the image of Obama throwing out the first pitch at the 2009 All-Star Game wearing — gasp! — “mom jeans”!?!
Or how about his urging young urban men to “pull up their pants”?
Cool? Well, in a Cliff Huxtable sort of way (a comparison “Saturday Night Live” noted earlier this year).
Even if a comic agrees with a president ideologically, he can’t let that get in the way of giving the appropriate mocking that all in power deserve. Last year, Kimmel’s WHCD predecessor, Seth Meyers — head writer on “SNL” — figured this out: “You know who could beat Obama in 2012? Obama from 2008,” he said, turning to Obama on the dais. “You would love him.” Without being insulting, Meyers wittily expressed the frustrations of many Americans.
Jimmy K., take note.
But does any of this really matter in the end? After all, it’s just comedy, right? Must we take it so seriously?
Oh, most definitely.
More than ever before, comedy is a valuable tool in the political and cultural message wars. Obama used his “stand-up” turn at 2011’s WHCD to simultaneously humiliate Donald Trump and essentially destroy the “birther” meme.
More significantly, Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have turned the art of political comedy and satire into a force independent of the traditional news media — yet able nonetheless to influence it. In our post-modern century, many young people now only learn about a political issue after Stewart and Colbert have mocked it. Stewart often uses his “Daily Show” platform to deconstruct political narratives — and then engages in serious debate with his conservative frenemy Bill O’Reilly on the latter’s talk show.
Colbert launched his own “super PAC” — Americans For A Better Tomorrow Tomorrow — to mock the big-money nature of politics.
From the conservative standpoint, Rush Limbaugh’s success for two decades stems from his use of a tactic similar to Stewart and Colbert: being knowledgeable enough about politics and policy so he can effectively skewer the pre- and mis-conceptions of the mainstream media.
But this approach has limits, as seen in the uproar over Limbaugh’s “prostitute” comments about Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke during the birth-control funding debate. Limbaugh was forced to apologize and (temporarily) lost some advertisers.
But the fallout in the broader comedy-political world couldn’t be ignored. Once Limbaugh was chastened, a pound of flesh had to be taken elsewhere. And so, liberal-ish Louis CK’s decidedly non-PC jokes about women caused enough controversy that he withdrew as the entertainment for the Radio & TV Correspondent’s Dinner (the WHCD’s less glamorous cousin). Liberal comedian Bill Maher came under plenty of fire as well.
All of this exposes an obvious reality: While conservatives have long dominated talk radio, liberals have had the upper hand in the comedy part of popular culture. Kimmel’s implicit kowtowing to Obama just highlights that.
So hungry are conservatives for an alternative to the Stewart/Colbert hegemony that many can be found still up as late as 3 a.m. EST weeknights to tune into the sardonic libertarian mockery of Fox News Channel’s “Red Eye.” (Fox shares a parent company with The Daily.)
Eschewing the “fake news” approach of Stewart and Colbert, host Greg Gutfeld, sidekick Andy Levy and rotating guests take snarky approaches to politics and current events. Levy quickly noted after Kimmel’s comment about Obama that a “cool” president wouldn’t raid marijuana dispensaries or still be “evolving” on gay marriage. (Full disclosure: This author has appeared on “Red Eye.”)
In addition to “Red Eye” — and conservative humor sites like Iowahawk and Duh Progressive — a handful of “SNL” veterans in recent years have “come out of the closet” as conservatives (or at least non-liberal). They include Victoria Jackson, now a tea party activist; Dennis Miller, now a radio host; and, arguably, anti-liberals Norm MacDonald and Colin Quinn. And this week, an audio clip of Jon Lovitz profanely slamming Obama over his soak-the-rich policies went viral.
Regardless of who headlines the “Nerd Prom” each year, clearly one major “benefit” of America’s currently polarized politics is humor and mockery coming from more directions than ever before.
That’s definitely something worth smiling about.
Robert A. George is a New York Post editorial writer and occasional stand-up comic.