Can We Laugh at Obama?

As the nation transitions from the erratic, divisive Bush-era into the historically momentous presidency of Obama the rhetoritician, some journalists are declaring crisis mode on a flourishing art form: the political satire.

After witnessing two years of emotional wrangling and finger-pointing, most of us are relieved to put the election season behind us. But as the nation transitions from the erratic, divisive Bush-era into the historically momentous presidency of Obama the rhetoritician, some journalists are declaring crisis mode on a flourishing art form: the political satire. Bush-impersonations have gone past the point of cliché, but no comedian is yet to figure out how to nail the uniquely relatable stateliness of Barack Obama. And most importantly, would audiences even respond if satirists like Jon Stewart mocked the messiah-like figure of so many Americans?

This week, New York Magazine outlined survival strategies for The Daily Show (according to writer Dan Kois, this may signal the start of a Colbert-dominant era for Comedy Central), while NPR criticized SNL cast member Fred Armisen's awkward Obama impersonation.

In his article, Kois said he wasn't worried about the survival of SNL, a show that just this year revived its dwindling ratings with the help of Tina Fey's turn as Sarah Palin. Rather, he wrote, Stewart's show depends on a viewership that's disappointed in its leadership.

"In one eventful day, the prototypical Daily Show viewer has been transformed: Once disaffected and angry at Washington's power structure, he's now delighted and hopeful about the new president and all that he symbolizes," Kois wrote. "And if you're an Obama fan — eager to give Barack the benefit of the doubt, and proud and excited about the change you've helped bring the nation — do you really want Jon Stewart sitting on the sidelines, taking potshots at your hero?"

Read the rest of his piece here.

In an NPR segment aired on Election Day, Hollywood Reporter editor Andrew Wallenstein praised Tina Fey's Palin, while calling Armisen's performance as Obama "horrible" and "painful."

While Armisen may have approached Obama from the wrong angle, Wallenstein also credited some of his failure to the difficulty of his task: When it comes to the president-elect, there is very little unintended humor to grasp onto.

"[Obama] is so measured, he doesn't really have any traits to exaggerate," Wallenstein said.

Today's New York Times included a story on the fifth annual New York Comedy Festival that focused on the comedic possibilities of soon-to-be President Obama. A festival panel that included writers for The Daily Show and Late Night With Conan O’Brien, as well as The Soup host Joel McHale and comedian Tracy Morgan, wasn't worried about a potential comedy drought. Many were planning to focus on mocking the media coverage itself—CNN's bizarre use of Star Wars-esque holograms, for example.

Obama's aides have already expressed some concern over the astronomical expectations that await the president-elect. Better times lay ahead, but some frustration may be inevitable—and opportunities for comedy closer than we might imagine.

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  • Joel Dechant

    But wait? Isn't this one of the reasons the cool, calculated man himself chose Joe Biden?
    There will never be a lack of comedy in politics, but if he does exceed even our wildest expectations, perhaps the Daily Show et al can start mocking foreign politicians to expand Americans' worldviews.
    Japan--for example--is ripe for the picking, and political satire is relatively unheard of here.

  • Charles Pharis

    in his own words..."Yes, we can!"
    And we should, because he works for us, not the other way around. he's just another in a long line of political hacks who made it to the more, no less...

  • Randall Drew

    We can't make fun of him because he is black. Period. Anything you say that is remotely humorous WILL BE contrued as racial by someone, somewhere, sooner or later.

    Just hang on to your wallets. The lefties are drooling over getting the keys to the Treasury already. You won't have much to laugh at after that happens.

  • JonO

    Here's a suggestion: don't bother making fun of Obama, just make fun of yourselves. (By the way, there is no suck word as "rhetoritician". Spell check much?)

  • JonO

    With terms like "relatable stateliness of Barack Obama", "messiah-like figure of so many Americans", "very little unintended humor to grasp onto" -- you have decidedly bowed to the influence of fear of hurting people's feelings. So, welcome to the cult of Obama.

    For a mag dedicated to the idea of creativity, you sure can have a lack of it. This article, at least, shows a lack of it. If you would like to get a list of things to make fun of about Obama, just ask. Seeing there is such a stark lack of ability to make fun of him, I think I may change my career to exploit it. Seriously.

    There is more than your limited capacity for stepping outside of your little world can accept, it would appear. Damn, it is lonely out here where everyone is funny.

    (Note: you spelled Stewart's first name wrong in the first para.)