The truth of it is this: making someone laugh at someone else’s expense fosters connection.
It’s true at the playground and the water cooler and, so, it’s tragically true in the ethereal space of public discourse. A well played “zinger” has four important characteristics: it must be clever, it must be funny, it must be timely and it must hold just enough truth to deliver insight and some value transferrance. While lovers of paintings have their Picasso or Rembrandt, those of us who swim in the sea of politics have our Mark Twain and Jon Stewart. The successful delivery of the political zinger is artfully executed by overlaying the solemnity of a subject with a poignant, powerfully funny commentary.
We need to feel clever for getting the joke. The ability to make you feel like you’re in on the fun is primarily what defines a comedian. Really good comedians make clever, funny jokes and end up with their own television shows and make loads of money. Bad comedians are doling out refills at Chili’s. Or, apparently, holding political office.
This morning, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to paint a Picasso of a zinger to CPAC, but ended up with something that came off as a paint by numbers “Dogs Playing Poker.” It’s no secret that the Republican party currently grapples with the dire task of reinventing itself to a broader segment of the American population, but discerning exactly how this reinvention is going to manifest in the next four years is a mystery. How exactly will they allure the women, racial and ethnic minorities and independents? Will they reinvent themselves or just repackage? It’s enough to fill at least an hour of a Lifetime mystery movie slot. Hopefully, McConnell’s paint by number “Dogs Playing Poker” joke was not a sneak preview.
“Finally,” he said as he addressed his audience in an awkwardly stylized posture, “don’t tell me that Democrats are the party of the future when their presidential ticket for 2016 is shaping up to look like a rerun of the ‘Golden Girls’.” I’m reminded just now of a moment in 2012 when the apple of my progressive liberal eye, President Obama, discussed his adventures in bowling at the White House. With his lean figure comfortably perched on Leno’s chair and his face tilted back in that familiar, smiling way, the President declared, “It’s like the Special Olympics or something.” I’m not going to lie, I saw that interview and I thought that joke was hilarious.
The president wanted to self efface a little, I imagine. It’s hard to connect to a man that seems polished and book smart, so the idea of him fumbling around makes us feel more connected. I’m not a great bowler, either, so that joke really worked for me. Only after President Obama phoned in an apology to the Special Olympics did it occur to me that the joke might not have been as funny to a mom like me who might have a child whose biggest dream at that moment was to compete in the Special Olympics. The intent on the leader’s part was to deliver the message that he was “just like us,” but the joke fell short when it was pointed out that the spirit of the joke did not honor values which he has often referred to: honoring diversity and acting with sensitivity.
See, the difference between a comedian telling a joke and a leader of our national community telling one is that a joke doesn’t only have to funny when it’s told by a leader — it has to both connect us to them and, most importantly, offer us a sampling about the truth of their core values. When a member of the public makes an off color joke, it can be awkwardly defended as “just a joke.” When a community leader, national or otherwise, makes one, they don’t have that luxury. A joke cast in the waters of political speech is at its core a quick device for developing and disseminating rhetoric. That’s why political humor as it is played out in our collective psyche can reflect layers of detail, truth and connection or can fall as flat as a six year old’s knock knock joke.
So, back to this morning and Mitch McConnell’s joke. As aforementioned, a zinger has four characteristics: it must be clever (okay, Hillary will be an older retiree, Biden will be in his 70s, the comparison is grudgingly apt), it must be funny (you say tomato, I say, “that’s not really funny”), it must be timely (I consider being fifteen minutes early a head start, but some people consider four years just adequate — so, fine, check) and it must hold just enough truth to deliver connection, value transference and insight.
Hmmm… and there’s the problem. I hear Chili’s is hiring, Senator.