Ballot Box

Campaign 2000’s Joke-Off

The debates are over, but the candidates aren’t done showcasing their comparative talents. Both spent yesterday dashing around New York City trying to prove themselves as entertainers. George W. appeared on the Late Show With David Letterman, while Al Gore visited Regis Philbin and Rosie O’Donnell. Both candidates dropped by Saturday Night Live to tape a segment that will be broadcast the weekend before Election Day. Finally, they faced off in tail coats with comic monologues at the white-tie Al Smith dinner. With this data in hand, it should now be possible to answer the crucial question: Which candidate is funnier?

This is, of course, notoriously subjective territory. But I don’t think it’s even a close call. Gore can be hilarious. Bush is funny, too, but seldom intentionally.

Gore’s métier is self-deprecation. His skill in this department was on display at the Smith dinner, an annual charity event sponsored by the Archdiocese of New York (to watch the archived C-SPAN broadcast, click here  and go to the Al Smith Memorial Dinner under “Recent Programs”). After a weak goof on claiming to have invented the Internet, Gore hit his stride. “And, of course, I want to acknowledge FEMA Director James Lee Witt, who accompanied me here tonight. We travel everywhere together.” Here are some of his other best lines:

“Please accept my apology for interrupting your meal. Since this is a special occasion, I wanted to mark it by getting all of my interruptions out of the way before Gov. Bush speaks.””I know some people are going keep accusing me of exaggeration, so let me be clear: Those people seek nothing less than the complete destruction of the American way of life.””Another thing that bugs me is when people say I’m just a wonk, obsessed with policy details. Well, like so many Americans, I like to just kick back and relax and watch television. … One of my favorite shows is Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? Well, it should really be called Who Wants To Be After Taxes a $651,237.07 Person? Of course, that’s under my plan. Under the governor’s plan, it would be Who Wants To Be After Taxes a $701,452…?””My plan to put Social Security in an ironclad lockbox has gotten a lot of attention recently, and I’m glad about that. But I’m afraid that it’s overshadowing some vitally important proposals. For instance, I’ll put Medicaid in a walk-in closet. I’ll put the Community Reinvestment Act in a secured gym locker. I’ll put NASA funding in a hermetically sealed Ziploc bag.”“Negotiations for this joint appearance with Gov. Bush were pretty intense. We did make one critical concession. Later on, Joe Lieberman will get 90 seconds to rebut grace.””I did think it was effective when I weaved in stories of real people in the audience and their everyday challenges. Like the woman here tonight whose husband is about to lose his job. She’s struggling to get out of public housing and get a job of her own. Hillary Clinton, I want to fight for you.”

Bush’s act was, by contrast, lame, lame, lame. He had only two decent cracks. The first was his opening greeting to the “distinguished dais–better known as the top 1 percent.” Bush described the audience as “the haves and the have-mores.” Then he added: “Some call you the elite. I call you my base.” His other funny moment was when he acknowledged his fellow Yale graduate William F. Buckley, who was sitting in the audience. “We have a lot in common,” Bush said. “He wrote a book at Yale. I read one.”

But the rest of the governor’s jokes hardly bear repeating–italicized use of the terms “major-league” and “big time,” a crack about Al Gore wearing earth tones, a whack at President Clinton for renting the Lincoln Bedroom, a jibe about his own penchant for mispronouncing the names of world leaders, and the usual “my wife thinks I’m a big loser” fodder. 

Fine, you say, but all that shows is that Gore has better joke-writers, like Al Franken and his daughter Kristin Gore, who works for Comedy Central. But Gore also trounces his rival in the spontaneous wit category. Appearing on Letterman last month, Gore was quick and supple. When the host started yammering about global warming, Gore shot back, “You are such a wonk.” And his “Top 10” list of new campaign slogans–admittedly canned–was excellent. My favorites: “Remember, America. I gave you the Internet, and I can take it away,” and “Vote for us. We’re going to work 24/6.”

Bush first appeared on Letterman back during the primaries, by satellite. He crashed in flames. When Letterman, just back from quintuple bypass surgery, asked Bush what he meant by saying he was a “uniter, not a divider,” the governor replied, “That means when it comes time to sew up your chest cavity, we use stitches as opposed to opening it up.” Letterman looked askance. The audience booed.

Last night, Bush appeared on Letterman again, this time in person. He giggled a lot, but he didn’t say anything clever. His only remotely amusing remark was that in the debates, “expectations were so low, all I had to do was say, ‘Hi, I’m George W. Bush.’ ” If Letterman turned the occasion into an unexpected serious interview about the death penalty and pollution in Texas, it may have been because Bush was failing the personality test so badly. Even his scripted “Top 10” list was crummy.

To be fair, Bush has said a great many funny things in the past year. And in fact, I’ve collected them all here.