The Presidency Is No Laughing Matter

I’ve spent a bit of time talking about the senses of humor of presidential candidates, both this time and last time, and I like to think I’ve made myself into a little bit of an expert on the topic. It’s become a bit of a fixation to me — largely because there aren’t many others who have chosen to talk about it, so I have, I guess by default, become “the” go-to person on the topic.

I’ve said before that, historically, the presidents with good sense of humor have been better than the ones who seemed to lack a funnybone. And while I am careful to avoid the “correlation means causation” fallacy, I think there is a link between the two.

Moreover, when I think about it, those people with a poor or no sense of humor are among the scariest people in the world.

I am indebted to Jon Stewart from The Daily Show for this observation. A couple of weeks ago, while discussing the New Yorker cartoon that depicted Barack Obama as a religious extremist (adn those who were bent out of shape over it), Stewart said the following:

“Obama is not upset about the cartoon that calls him a Muslim extremist. Who gets upset about cartoons? Muslim extremists.”

There are quite a few humorless people in the world today. Muslim extremists are merely the most prominent. They are the ones who have literally killed people over cartoons — and the people they killed weren’t even the cartoonists, just convenient targets.

Feminists are also infamous for their lack of humor. “How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? THAT’S NOT FUNNY!”

That’s not fair. I give the feminists credit for one major contribution to humor. I strongly suspect that they were a primary factor in the development of one significant trend in TV sitcoms: the doofus dad.

Over the last 20 years or so, the doofus dad has become a sitcom staple. Pretty much every father on a sitcom has been a bozo, a buffoon, a dolt, a clod, a laughingstock. And I’ve laughed along with everyone else — I watched “Home Improvement” from start to finish, and Al Bundy is a personal hero of mine. But I don’t think that it’s a good thing.

Dictators and tyrants are also notoriously humorless. Joking around in the Soviet Union or Cuba or North Korea or China could get you locked up — or worse.

This has led to some very disturbing consequences. The Soviet Union’s intolerance for mockery led to the immigration of Yakov Smirnoff, and inflicting him on the US was nearly an act of war.

Humor, for all its other benefits, helps us cope with unfortunate or terrible events. After 9/11, Art Buchwald wrote a book entitled “We’ll Laugh Again.” And Robin Williams came up with the first 9/11 joke that I found funny. Lemme paraphrase:

President Bush was awakened at 3 in the morning by a phone call from Yassir Arafat. “Mr. President, I wanted to offer the sympathies of the Palestinian people over the terrible terrorist attacks your country has suffered this day.”

Bush, a bit groggily, answered. “What are you talking about?”

“FUCK! I forgot about the time zones!”

We’ve had our share of presidents with poor or no senses of humor. And they have consistently been ranked as poor presidents. Johnson, Nixon, and Carter were not exactly laugh riots, and they were horrible in office. Add in Coolidge, Grant and Pierce to that equation.

On the other hand, those presidents who are consistently ranked among the best are the ones who are often seen as the wittiest. Reagan, Kennedy, and Lincoln were the masters of the quips, the one-liners, the anecdotes, the bon mots.

It isn’t just presidents, and it isn’t just witticisms. Winston Churchill was one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, and his rapier wit is the stuff of legend.

As I said at the outset, I am not arguing that a sense of humor is a surefire indicator of whether or not a president will be successful. Nor am I saying that it should be the sole criteria on which we vote.

But it does seem to be, historically, it seems to be a darned good bellwether and a reliable indicator of success.

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