[1 May 2009]
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
When it comes to taking lumps from comedians, Barack Obama, of course, is still no George W. Bush.
But, as the new administration hits the 100-days-in-office fake milestone, the satirical greeting for the new president has been more muscular than many expected.
Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” has shown that Obama’s press secretary can sound almost exactly like Bush’s press secretary, among other displays of the distance between image and reality.
“Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!” on public radio has called the president out for attempting to claim his bow to Saudi King Abdullah was not a bow.
“What makes it funny is they were flat-out lying about it,” says host Peter Sagal. “He was bending from the waist.”
Second City, in its current mainstage show, points out the monumental tasks Obama has before him and wishes a skeptical, “Good luck.” And the opening song, “Elected,” points out, among other antidotes to hopium, that “Barack doesn’t support gay marriage.”
Then there was this, from HBO’s Bill Maher: “How many watched the Obama speech on Tuesday night? If you didn’t see it, I’ll give you the short version. We’re completely broke, and deeply in debt, but we’re going to do a bank rescue, universal health care, give everybody a college education, have a bigger war in Afghanistan, cut the deficit in half and cure cancer.”
It may not compare to the unyielding portrayals, by the end, of Bush as an overmatched dunderhead. But it is something, especially in comparison to the advance concern that nobody would lay a glove on the new president, either because of the comics’ own political sympathy or their fear of offending an audience strongly in Obama’s corner.
“That’s just 24-hour cable news pundit blather,” says Spike Feresten, host of the Fox Network’s “Talkshow.”
“I would guess most comics don’t use Wolf Blitzer, or any other beard in a suit, as their comedy compass.”
Feresten says he is bored with the common Obama-is-black theme. (Sample, from Jay Leno: “During his trip to Ottawa, Canada, President Obama said he was too embarrassed to admit to the Canadians that he’d never actually seen a hockey game. To which the Canadians said, “Oh, don’t worry, we’ve never seen a black guy.”) “People are a lot more complicated than their ethnicity,” says the host of the Saturday late-night show.
“Audiences want something a little smarter these days. I like to hit the Hawaiian thing. I don’t know why that makes me laugh, but it does. ... Well, so much for sounding smart.”
At “Wait Wait,” the humor-in-the-news show produced at Chicago Public Radio, Sagal says the challenge comes not so much from Obama himself as from the contrast to Bush.
“The days when we could stroll into the office late knowing George Bush would write our show for us are over,” Sagal says.
But Bush was an “anomaly,” he points out, for offering comedians so many paths in. With Obama “it’s not so much adjusting to an abnormally perfect president, but just adjusting to normality.”
Still, Sagal says, it wouldn’t hurt if Obama would, just once, insert his foot in his mouth.
“Another thing drives me crazy,” he adds. “He often makes jokes about himself before you do. And they’re good jokes.”
(Said Obama at a New York dinner in October: “I got my name, Barack, from my father ... and I got my middle name from somebody who obviously didn’t think I’d ever run for president.”)
It hasn’t hurt the comics’ cause that Obama’s Cabinet and other appointments were such a contrast to the squeaky-clean image he has tried to project and that the economy is so troubled.
Said “Tonight’s” Jay Leno recently, “President Barack Obama told his Cabinet yesterday to ensure that every taxpayer dollar is spent wisely. But there was one embarrassing moment, when he had to explain to the Cabinet what a taxpayer was.”
“I’ve seen some comedians go after the current president and get laughs, which I didn’t think would happen for another two years,” says the comic Lenny Clarke, currently with Denis Leary and others on the “Rescue Me” comedy tour. “But if he keeps up at the rate he’s going, they’ll be calling him terrible names in six months.”
Clarke, no liberal, has been doing a version of the following line live, he says: “I did believe him, but he’s a liar. I mean, ‘Change’? All we’re gonna have is spare change by the time he’s done.”
It gets big laughs, Clarke says. And Bill Maher, too, has said that his stand-up audiences are very receptive to material critical of Obama. By contrast, Maher’s studio audiences, and Jon Stewart’s, can be heard to gasp, or even boo, at such jokes.
A little safer was a recent monologue joke offered by ABC host Jimmy Kimmel: “President Obama celebrated Earth Day by flying his enormous plane to Iowa to visit a wind-power plant.”
The joke is on the trappings of the presidency, more than on the man. Similarly, the take at Second City is about people’s impressions of Obama, says mainstage performer Anthony LeBlanc. “We’re sort of playing with the feeling of the Obama state we live in,” LeBlanc says. “‘Hey, you think this guy is going to fix everything, but he probably can’t. He’s a human being.’ We’re making fun of people who invest that much in a person, almost to the point where they give up their responsibility.”
As far as impressions go, we continue to await anything definitive. On “Saturday Night Live,” guest host Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson actually had a better version - ‘The Rock Obama,’ making fun of Obama’s fight to control his temper - than regular cast impersonator Fred Armisen’s drab take on the president.
Steve Bridges, known for impersonating George W. Bush, recently told the comic Larry Miller that “he’s looking for the inflection” to nail an Obama impersonation, Miller says.
“He said, ‘Sooner or later, someone’s going to find that hook in there, and everyone’s going to wind up following the lead.’”
Meanwhile, we have Peter Sagal wait, waiting, for professional reasons, for a crack in the veneer. “The guy has got to be human,” Sagal says. “The pressure of the office is going to get to him. I want him to blow up. I want him to lose his cool. I don’t care about what.”