When the going gets tough, the tough go to dinners.
Fancy dinners. White tie and tailcoat dinners like the Al Smith dinner in New York.
You may have missed the fact that the times are hilarious, but John McCain and Barack Obama were called upon to be hilarious Thursday night because that is what the Al Smith dinner demands.
The dinner is sponsored by the Archdiocese of New York and raises millions of dollars for underprivileged children. It is a political rite of passage where the politicians are required to be funny. As if politics isn't funny enough without trying.
It is the last time the two men are scheduled to be on stage together. McCain spoke first and was the John McCain of old, which is to say relaxed, droll and charming.
"This is as good a place as any to make a major announcement," he said. "It's true that this morning I've dismissed my entire team of advisers. All their positions will be held by a man named Joe the Plumber."
McCain then said some have questioned whether Joe the Plumber could possibly earn enough to have his taxes raised by Barack Obama. The answer is yes, McCain said, and for one reason: "Joe the Plumber recently signed a very lucrative contract with a very wealthy couple to handle all the work on all seven of their houses!"
"I'm the underdog, but there are signs of hope," McCain went on. "I can't shake the feeling that some people here are pulling for me. I am delighted to see you here tonight, Hillary."
And Hillary Clinton was indeed on the many-tiered dais along with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York Gov. David Paterson, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and NBC's Brian Williams.
But McCain singled out one person who was absent: "Where's Bill, by the way?" he asked Hillary. "Can't he take one night off from his tireless quest to help the man who defeated his wife become the next president?
McCain got in a few shots at MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews, suggesting that Olbermann ought to be in a "padded cell." This was the John McCain of old, too. When he doesn't like you, he lets you know it.
McCain then kidded Obama - - the two actually seem to like each other on a personal level - - implying that he wanted America's financial meltdown to continue for political purposes. "At the first sign of recovery, he will suspend his campaign and return to Washington to address this crisis," McCain said, as Obama laughed heartily, or at least what passes for heartily at these things.
McCain ended with some very nice words about Obama and the racial barriers he has overcome, saying, "My opponent is an impressive man in many ways. I have had a few glimpses of this great man at his best. I can't wish my opponent luck, but I do wish him well."
Obama, too, was funny. (And his cutaway coat didn't really fit him. Which is good for a Democrat.)
"Can somebody tell me what happened to the Greek columns I requested?" Obama said and then mentioned the hotel where the dinner was being held. "I do love the Waldorf-Astoria. I hear from the doorstep you can see all the way to the Russian Tea Room."
He then turned to Mayor Bloomberg and said that he is "going to be rewriting the rules and running for a third term. Which caused President Clinton to say, 'You can do that?' "
Bloomberg chuckled, but did not look all that amused.
But Obama's funniest lines were reserved for tweaking himself. "Contrary to rumors you have heard, I was not born in a manger," he said. "I was born on Krypton and sent here by my father Jor-El to save the Planet Earth.
"Barack is actually Swahili for 'that one.' And I got my middle name from someone who obviously didn't think I'd ever run for president.
"My greatest strength is my humility. My greatest weakness is that I am a little too awesome."
Obama concluded by saying, "There are very few of us who have served this country with the same honor and distinction as Sen. McCain."
OK, that's enough of that. Dinner's over. Now they can go back to kicking the heck out of each other.