Thursday, February 27, 2014

"Anatomy Of A Joke"

Yesterday, in passing, I referenced a joke delivered by President Obama at an annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, in which he shot back at New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd for hectoring him repeatedly about his inability to successfully push through his agenda.  In the post, I called that joke “spectacular in every respect.” 

Setting aside the joke’s nightclub-caliber delivery by President Obama, my effusive praise goes specifically to the remarkable joke writer behind the scenes who masterfully crafted it for him.

Experiencing that impeccable comedic moment made my eyes twinkle brightly and my smile broaden in hat-tipping admiration.  And, when it comes to President Obama’s prepared remarks, not for the first time.

I recall a similar moment when, during the 2008 presidential campaign, the then candidate Obama humbly announced,

“My name is Barack Hussein Obama.  I got my first name from my father.  I got my middle name from someone who never thought I’d be running for president.”

I may not have the precise wording there, but, in its essence and intention, the joke stands out for being courageous, self-deprecating, and, most importantly, identifiably human. 

For a joke to exist, it must first be imagined.  It must then meticulously constructed.  (Sometimes, that happens spontaneously; sometimes, it doesn’t.)  Finally, it has to be approved, meaning the deliverer of that joke has to think it’s funny, and, albeit dangerous, worth telling. 

What the joke reveals is that the speaker is an transparently self-aware human being, burdened with a problematic middle name, especially if, at this current time in our history, he seeks election to the highest office in the land.  (The joke earns “Extra Credit” for being, not generic, but specifically tailored to the only person who could tell it.) 

By addressing a legitimate “negative” head on, the joke is indisputably bold, bringing its deliverer not only a well-deserved laugh but, through its uncomfortable self-admission, an acknowledging measure of undeniable respect.

And now, there is this joke.  The president’s magnificent “push-back” against Maureen Dowd during the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.  The joke goes (exactly, ‘cause I looked it up) like this:

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in “The American President.”  Michael is here tonight.  Michael, what’s your secret, man?  Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy? 

For me, the joke was breathtaking in its perfection.  The wording is perfect, as is the joke’s length.  (A carelessly worded joke that’s either too long or too short, no matter how funny the idea behind it is – it’s over.) 

I would ask you to pay particular attention to the joke’s construction.  For therein, for me, lies its exquisiteness.

The joke is constructed in an indirect manner.  It appears to be going one way.  Then, it swings around at the last second, nailing its victim solidly from an unexpected direction. 

Here are different, and to me, inferior ways that that same joke could be told: 

Let’s call this the “Louis Black Version”:

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in “The American President.”  (LOOKING DIRECTLY AT THE AUDIENCE)  That an imbecile!

Sarcasm, anyone?

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in “The American President.”  (A PAUSE.  THEN, DIRECTLY ADDRESSING MAUREEN DOWD)  Maureen, you do know that was a movie.

Or how about this approach:

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in “The American President.”  (LOOKING UP)  Don’t blame me, Maureen.  Blame the Republicans who have conspired from “Day One” to defeat my agenda at every turn!  (AFTER A BEAT)  I’m sorry, I blanked out for a second.  I thought I was complaining to my wife.  

I kinda like that one.  And may possibly, had I the opportunity, have suggested it myself.  It’s angry, but with a “pull-back.”  But even that alternative does not hold a comedic candle to the actual selection.  It at first singles out Maureen Dowd, then turns, seemingly harmlessly, to address Michael Douglas, and then, in the guise of a conversation with Michael, it whips around, and obliterates Maureen Dowd.

That is a special joke.  A original prototype, I would assert. 

And one well worth stopping this whacky merry-go-round to pay tribute to.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

An interesting addendum is that this joke has a heritage.

To wit:

In September 2008, when Obama's campaign was doing so great, Dowd published a column in which she printed Aaron Sorkin's account of a meeting between Obama and THE WEST WING's president, Jed Bartlett, in which Obama asked Bartlett for advice. ( Bartlett told him to get angrier, among other things, but also advised Obama that he had a much easier time of things: "Being fictional was a big advantage."

In October 2012, just after the first presidential election debate, Dowd did a column she claimed was Aaron Sorkin's account of Obama approaching THE WEST WING's president Jed Bartlett for advice (

So Obama's joke twisted back at Dowd in two ways. The first, was the takedown you've noted. But the other indicates that he reads and even enjoys her column. The background suggests that the joke is gentler and maybe even a bit affectionate, than one might suppose without knowing that.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Er. Was *not* doing so great.