3:02pm

Wed April 11, 2012
It's All Politics

Not Just For Laughs: Why Humor Can Be A Powerful Campaign Tool

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:52 am

At the end of the month, President Obama will deliver a string of punch lines at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. It's an annual tradition, a chance for the man at the top of the pyramid to poke fun at his political opponents and himself.

Humor is an essential tool in any politician's kit — all the more so in an age of instant, constant media. It can disarm an opponent, woo a skeptical voter or pierce an argument. This year, both Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney are using it to try to win the upper hand in the presidential race.

So far in this campaign, Obama and Romney have been the butt of a lot more jokes than they've made themselves. Anyone in the White House is a nightly source of material for comedians of all kinds. Romney, meanwhile, has been mocked for saying the trees in Michigan are the right height, and for telling Mississippi voters that he learned to say "y'all."

Romney has been trying to reverse his reputation as a humorless aristocrat. When he stiffly told CNN last December, "I live for laughter," the line had the opposite effect, reinforcing his buttoned-up image.

And when he cited his comedic preferences in that same interview, "Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, even the Keystone Kops," the examples were not exactly the laugh track of 2012.

Yet occasionally, a genuinely funny side of Romney slips out. At the end of a particularly bad day campaigning in Michigan, the candidate seemed a bit slap-happy when he took the stage at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. He talked about driving through the town of Brighton, where his parents are buried.

"My dad is a very frugal man, and he checked all over for where the best deal was on a gravesite," Romney told the audience. Sounding incredulous at his family's quirks, he wrapped up the story with this advice: "If you're looking for the best deal on a gravesite, check Brighton. They've got a good spot. And you're near the former governor and former first lady!"

It was a human moment that endeared Romney to his audience. That is the most valuable use of humor in politics, says former White House speechwriter Landon Parvin. "If you can make fun of yourself, it says that I'm just like you."

Parvin has written speeches for the last three Republican presidents, and he is known for his comedy. He says the connective power of humor could be especially important this year. Each candidate is trying to portray the other as an out-of-touch elitist who doesn't understand the American people. A joke shared with an audience can serve as anti-venom. It's a way of telling voters, "We get each other."

Parvin thinks both men are missing opportunities to forge these kinds of connections. "Neither of the candidates that I see are using genial, good-natured humor," he says. "What I've seen on the campaign so far is the insult and the cut."

The cut can serve a purpose too, says former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett, who's now writing a sitcom for NBC.

"If you can make someone laugh about something that your opponent or your opposition thinks, that means you've done a really good job of highlighting what's wrong with their argument or their position," says Lovett.

He points to an immigration speech that President Obama delivered on the Texas border last May. The president argued that every time he met Republican demands, the Republicans moved the goalposts.

"They said we needed to triple the border patrol," Obama said. "Well now they're gonna say we need to quadruple the border patrol. Or they'll want a higher fence. Maybe they'll need a moat. Maybe they want alligators in the moat!"

Most of that speech was a rehash of arguments the president had made before. But thanks to the joke about alligators, the speech was all over the news.

"So not only is it about having that connection with an audience; it's also about figuring out ways to bust through a culture of politics and media that makes conveying substantive arguments so difficult," says Lovett.

That media culture makes humor in politics more valuable now than it has ever been, says communications professor John Meyer of the University of Southern Mississippi.

"I think the more we have had media involved in our presidential campaigns, the more humor has become a force for presidents to use both in becoming elected and in becoming an effective president," says Meyer.

Still, there are examples of presidential humor stretching back more than 150 years. In a debate, Abraham Lincoln was once accused of being two-faced. The famously homely man replied, "If I had two-faces, would I be wearing this one?"

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In a few weeks, President Obama will address the White House Correspondents' Dinner. It's a chance for the man at the top of the pyramid to make fun of his political opponents and himself. Humor is an essential tool in any politician's kit, and all the more important in this age of instant, constant media.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on how Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney both are using it in this year's presidential campaign.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: So far in this campaign, President Obama and his chief challenger, Mitt Romney, have been the butt of a lot more jokes than they've made themselves. Anyone in the White House is a source of material for comedians of all kinds, like David Letterman.

DAVID LETTERMAN: The car is a lot like Obama himself. The car runs well, but it doesn't have the power to pass anything.

SHAPIRO: And Romney has been mocked for saying the trees in Michigan are the right height, and for telling Mississippi voters that he learned to say y'all. When Romney described his sense of humor on CNN last December, it only reinforced his buttoned-up image.

MITT ROMNEY: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know I live for laughter. I mean...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: In that interview, he talked about his comedic preferences.

ROMNEY: I used to watch Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, you know, even the Keystone Cops...

SHAPIRO: Not exactly the laugh track of 2012. Yet occasionally, a genuinely funny side of Romney slips out. At Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, he talked about driving through the town of Brighton, where his parents are buried.

ROMNEY: Its like, how did you pick Brighton, dad? Well, best price I could find in the whole state.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMNEY: So if you're looking for the best deal on a gravesite, check Brighton. They got a good spot. And you're near the former governor and the former first lady.

LANDON PARVIN: One thing humor does, if you can make fun of yourself, it says that, I'm just like you.

SHAPIRO: Landon Parvin has written speeches for the last three Republican presidents. He says the connective power of humor could be especially important this year. Each candidate is trying to portray the other as out of touch. A shared joke can serve as antivenom. It's a way of telling voters: We get each other. And Parvin thinks both men are missing opportunities.

PARVIN: Neither of the candidates that I see are using genial, good-natured humor. What I've seen in the campaign so far is the insult and the cut.

SHAPIRO: But the cut can serve a purpose, too, says former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett, who's now writing a sitcom for NBC.

JON LOVETT: If you can make someone laugh about something that your opponent or your opposition thinks, that means you've done a really good job of highlighting what's wrong with their argument or their position.

SHAPIRO: He points to an immigration speech where the president argued that every time he met Republican demands, the Republicans move the goal posts.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, they said we needed to triple the Border Patrol. Well, now, they're going to say we need to quadruple the Border Patrol, or they'll want a higher fence. Maybe they'll need a moat.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Maybe they want alligators in the moat.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Most of that speech was a rehash of stuff the president had said before. But Lovett says because of the alligators joke, the speech was all over the news.

LOVETT: And so it's also about figuring out ways to bust through a culture of politics and media that makes conveying substantive argument so difficult.

SHAPIRO: That media culture makes humor in politics more valuable today than ever before, says Communications Professor John Meyer of the University of Southern Mississippi.

JOHN MEYER: I think the more we have media involved in our presidential campaigns, the more humor has become a force for presidents to use, both in becoming elected and in becoming an effective president.

SHAPIRO: Yet, there are also examples of presidential humor stretching back more than 150 years. In a debate, Abraham Lincoln was once accused of being two-faced. The famously homely Lincoln replied: If I had two faces, would I be wearing this one? Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.