Fighting Words

Obama’s Court Jesters

As Wanda Sykes showed, comedians aren’t funny when they try to flatter the president.

Wanda Sykes

As a gnarled and grizzled veteran of the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner (it must be almost three decades since I first tuxed up and attended one), I see no reason to miss the chance to comment on the Wanda Sykes phenomenon. This is because I think it may actually tell us something about the American and international press and its over-ripe relationship to the new president of the United States.

As he showed at the Al Smith dinner last year—the one minor round in the entire campaign that went decisively to John McCain—Barack Obama may be graceful and charming on the podium, but he is not a natural wit. And on May 9 Obama made the same point in a different way: by pausing for a smile-break to mark his every punchline. It may be a fetching-enough smile, but we old stand-up artists learned long ago that if you have to signal a joke, then it is a weak one. Any audience that is being cued or prompted to applaud is also likely to say to itself, “Actually, we’ll be the judge of that.”

Still, the president did intermittently grasp the main point of the evening, which is that any humor must in some way be at the expense of the guest of honor: namely and on this occasion, himself. He showed he understood this when he opened with a gag about his famous reliance on teleprompters and when he told his audience, deadpan, “Many of you cover me. All of you voted for me.” The whole point of self-deprecation is that it disarms: You do not have to be a masochist to know how to practice it.

Now, Wanda Sykes didn’t get this point at all. She used up almost all her time with loud attacks, not all of them thigh-slappingly funny, on the previous administration and on the critics of the incumbent one. I am pretty sure that this is a first. Anyone with a memory even of the Clinton-Bush years will be able to remember that the comic talent, whether funny or not, was always engaged to “roast” the chief executive to some degree. And this in turn prompts my question: Did the inviting committee fail to explain this to Ms. Sykes? How does it come about that the whole point of the annual press beano was negated by a performer who is more than 100 percent in the president’s corner?

There is a mildly racist comedian in England named Jim Davidson who thinks it amusing to ask what West Indians said to themselves while using the black-and-white strips of the pedestrian crossing. (“Now you see me, now you don’t; now you see me, now you don’t.”) * In order for this to be funny in the least—and I frankly despaired of it ever achieving that critical mass so essential to the life and definition of a comedian—it would have to be just as funny if a “white” person was traversing the road in the same way.

Not laughing yet? Me neither. Well, then, why is it so “edgy” for Wanda Sykes to say that Obama gets lots of praise now, but that if he messes up, it’ll be, “What’s up with the half-white guy?” This can be remotely hilarious only if said by somebody nonwhite, but almost every paleface in the audience seemed to feel it their duty to rock back and forth with complicit mirth.

Still, at least that weak opening stuff was in some manner launched in Obama’s direction. The rest of Sykes’ time was spent vocalizing the talking points of and Air America. If I am in a taxi and Rush Limbaugh is on the radio, I ask the driver to switch the station or switch it off altogether. Limbaugh’s life, like his appeal, is a closed book to me. But I presume that he was on painkiller medication for some reason before he began to become dependent on it, and before he became an object of our adorable “war on drugs.” It’s not so much that it isn’t very funny to mock him for his Oxycontin habit. It’s that it’s near-impossible to imagine our Sable Sapphist lampooning a black equivalent of Limbaugh for an addiction to, say, crack.

I absolutely believe that jokes should always be at someone’s expense. But for that very reason they must also be highly amusing and—just perhaps—imaginable when told of one’s own “community.” Low score for Sykes on both counts.

President Bush used to tell jokes about his weaknesses, the most salient of these being his tragic struggle with grammar, itself quite possibly rooted in dyslexia. Many of President Obama’s jokes, his speechwriters should take note, were at the expense of his strengths—”I might lose my cool”—and were thus bordering on the narcissistic. (If I have a fault, and I’m the first to admit it, it’s probably this: I am too sweet and too patient and too tolerant of the mistakes of others.)

Any tendency to narcissism doubles the need for a follow-up speaker who can make the president wince, not smirk. This we did not get. And Limbaugh’s dependence, like Bush’s dyslexia, is actually a disability. Can you easily picture any jokes from the Sable Sapphist that would in any other way breach the protocols of the Americans With Disabilities Act? Any other person of whom she would dare say, “I hope his kidneys fail”? Any other context in which torture would be funny enough for her to yell, “He needs a water-boarding, that’s what he needs”? Reality and comedy check here: Would she even say this about Osama Bin Laden?

When comedians flatter the president, they become court jesters, and the country becomes a banana republic. There are probably even people who would wish to misconstrue that last phrase of mine if they felt “sensitive” enough. In which case they can take a number, get on line, and ask to suck my thumb.

Correction, May 19, 2009: The original version of this article said the late comedian Les Dawson used to tell a joke about West Indians using a crosswalk. That joke is more commonly associated with comedian Jim Davidson. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)