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Jewish World Review
August 4, 2008
/ 3 Menachem-Av 5768
A black and a Jew walk into the White House…
Why Lieberman can be made fun of and Obama can't
I wasn't going to bother with the whole Obama "humor deficit thing," until I began wondering if anyone has compared Obama jokes to Lieberman jokes.
In talking about the late-night comedians' inability to get a comedic "handle" on Obama, it's a useful compare-and-contrast. Like Obama, Lieberman as vice presidential candidate under Gore was breaking ethnic ground the first in his ethnic group to be considered for so high an office. And like Obama, Lieberman had a virtuous, even sanctimonious, reputation in 2000.
So why were there more Lieberman jokes? Could it suggest that America is more willing to mock Jews than blacks, and Jews are more accepting of such jokes? The short answer is yes. The long answer is well, first consider what was funny about Lieberman the First Jewish Vice Presidential Candidate.
There were basically two categories of Lieberman Jewish jokes. First there were the old-school ethnic jokes, playing off (fairly mild, but sometimes uncomfortable) Jewish stereotypes: Jews drive a hard bargain. Jews have guilt. Jews eat funny foods. Jews have strange holidays.
Consider one of the "Top 21 Results of Having a Jewish Vice President," which wandered around the Internet: "U.S. never to pay retail again for nuclear warheads." Or this one from freelance writer Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe: "Although Lieberman has not yet mapped out his full domestic agenda, he did say that all the White House furniture will be covered in plastic slip covers."
Cute. Offensive? Told among Jews, no big deal. If Leno told them, we could live with it. I wouldn't want to hear such jokes from Pat Buchanan, but they're not exactly a blood libel.
Second were the insider-y jokes, told by Jews themselves, who juxtaposed the worlds of observant Judaism and the Executive Branch. About minyanim (prayer quorums) in the Oval Office, for example, or a kosher supervisor aboard Air Force One. These are the kinds of jokes Jon Stewart told. Lieberman "has promised to build that bridge to the 58th century," quipped Stewart, and will work for the American people "24/6."
Again, fairly harmless and funny to about 740 people who happen to live on the Upper West Side.
Now Obama. If late-night talk show hosts were to tell jokes about him using even mild ethnic stereotypes, they would keep wandering into dangerous territory. First, the hosts are all white. It's low-risk for Jon Stewart to tell Jewish jokes, because he is a Jew. And it's safe for a non-Jew like Leno to tell Jewish jokes because well, the entertainment industry is Jewish, in the sense that Jews are represented disproportionately not only on the creative side, but on the content side. Jewish stereotypes abound in entertainment, but they are largely benign. At worst, we're pushy and ethnic. At best, we're the truth-telling outsiders, like Judd Hirsch in Independence Day or Jeff Goldblum in every movie he's ever made.
Jewish jokes have also lost their sting thanks to our community's great economic, professional, and academic success. In that sense, to use a phrase popular in the academic press, Jews have become white people.
White hosts have a problem with black humor because so many black stereotypes and let's face it, humor demands stereotypes are weighed down by historical baggage and the continued perception of racial inequality. A black comedian like Chris Rock can riff on single motherhood, black-on-black crime, and 100 other close-to-the-bone stereotypes, but Jay Leno can't. So he's relegated to gags like this one, about Obama's prowess on the basketball court: "Let me tell you something. If shooting baskets now is a requirement to be president, a white guy may never have that job again."
Leno managed to find perhaps the least touchy stereotype about blacks and make it funny. But where else can he go?
Finally, there's Obama himself. It is not that he is humorless. It's that he confounds black stereotypes, and comedians haven't found an alternative. To joke that Joe Lieberman would serve gefilte fish at the White House works as a (not very funny) joke because you can imagine Lieberman as a typical older Jewish guy. But to say that 50 Cent will be Obama's secretary of defense rings false, because comedians sense, rightly or wrongly, that Obama isn't "that kind" of black man. Their audiences perceive his background as too diverse, his education and demeanor as too "white," for the black stereotypes to get much purchase. And perhaps in confounding black stereotypes, Obama is helping to knock them down.
None of this has to do with "political correctness." It's really about the authenticity of joke-telling that a joke works only if it is grounded in something we suspect or acknowledge as "true." That Lieberman is "Jew-y." That Gore is stiff. That Bill Clinton is a rogue.
Comedians, who've tagged McCain as "old," are still struggling to find that unshakeable comedic label for Obama. They've tried smug, messianic, self-righteous. Jackie Mason calls him an empty suit, a "doorman." And still Obama slips the punch line.
But give it time. Presidential races have a way of making a joke out of everybody.
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JWR contributor Andrew Silow-Carroll is the editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News, where this article first appeared. To comment, please click here.
© 2008, Andrew Silow-Carroll