For those in the business of political mockery, the last 16 years have been a glorious golden age. If Bill Clinton was a full-employment act for political comedians, then George W. Bush was a welfare program.
But when Barack Obama takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, the era of easy presidential punch lines may be coming to a close. As it has been widely noted in humor circles, Obama remains a tough target. So far, the most memorable Obama mockery has ranged from the utterly atrocious (see: the "Barack the Magic Negro" song parody debacle) to the mildly amusing (Fred Armisen's competent but guffaw-free impersonation of Obama on Saturday Night Live).
What's in store for political humor in the age of Obama? Will he be the president who presides over the bursting of the comedy bubble? Or can he find a way to bail out the comedy industry too? There's no better way to find out than directly from those on the front lines of the comedy crisis -- the comedians, joke writers, and satirists tasked with the urgent work of fortifying our nation's strategic humor reserves.
These intrepid souls were asked to weigh in on the pressing comedic question of the day: How do you plan to survive the Obama years? Their testimonials follow:
Joe Grossman, writer, "The Late Show With David Letterman":
My best guess is that the late-night hosts will have to reinvent their shows now that political humor will cease to exist. Most likely, you'll see Letterman replace all of his comedy material with cooking segments, household safety demonstrations, poetry readings, and public service announcements imploring America's teenagers to practice sound physical and social hygiene. Either that, or the Obama administration will prove fallible, and mockery of government will continue as it has for most of recorded history. Could go either way.
Michael Colton and John Aboud, screenwriters, VH1 talking heads, and writers for Fox's upcoming animated comedy Sit Down, Shut Up:
Barack Obama is a transformational figure who represents the fulfillment of the American dream and the end of all humor. His wisdom and judgment will erase every single social and political discontent that fuels comedy, including marital strife, the inconveniences of air travel, and D.M.V. wait times. He will cause humans to cease breaking wind. We forecast the last joke in America will be told on Aug. 5, 2009 -- a tepidly received one-liner conflating Leon Panetta with the foodstuff "pancetta."
Kevin Bleyer, writer, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart":
On the contrary, I'm thrilled about an Obama presidency. During the Bush years, all my jokes were written by a team of Chinese pre-teens in a Shanghai sweatshop. Not that they didn't do a superb job -- I thought their take on seating the Michigan delegation was especially insightful -- but I'm just happy to have my job back.
Peter Gwinn, writer, "The Colbert Report":
We do face a serious problem, because now that George Bush is no longer president, nothing is funny in the entire world. I expect that in 2009, most of my own comedy will consist of reading Laffy Taffy wrappers out loud: "Why are rhinos so wrinkly?" "Because they're hard to iron." That joke right there will always be comedy gold, at least until America elects a rhino president.
For the first few weeks, I plan to scream for joy and hug strangers on the street as I've done continuously since the night of Nov. 4. Then I plan to keep writing material that uniquely illuminates this country's socio-political reality while causing laughter and self-urination among my audience. That's what political comics do. Too many people had one Bush-is-dumb joke and thought that made them the next Mark Twain. The arrival of a president fluent in English should raise the bar.
Charlie Kadau, comedy writer and senior editor, MAD magazine:
Commanders-in-chief who exhibit competence and self-control are never mother lodes for jokes, so we'll have to start slow: we now have a President who's having a problem quitting smoking, he's obsessed with his Blackberry, he lives with his mother-in-law...given that, let's be thankful there are still plenty of Republicans in D.C. Of course, we can always go at it from a different direction -- the current MAD has a side gag in a piece on the inaugural in which Rev. Jeremiah Wright is saying to William Ayers, "Goddamn nice of the RNC to get us tickets to this!" Ultimately, why am I optimistic? Look who Obama has included in his inner circle -- the Clintons! Talk about a humor stimulus package!
Raymond Lesser, editor, The Funny Times:
I don't think Obama will be hard to make fun of. Cartoonists and comedians just need to get to know him better. But I think he'll be much more like Bugs Bunny than Bush, who has pretty much turned into Elmer Fudd. (Or am I thinking of that other great hunter, Dick Cheney?) Anyway, people love Bugs Bunny and wind up laughing much more with him than at him.
Rusty Ward, writer, BarelyPolitical.com:
When Lex Luthor first encountered Superman he faced a difficult dilemma, how do you stop a man who is unstoppable? Comedians face a similar dilemma in 2009: how do you make fun of a president who is unmake-funnable? Eventually, Lex discovered kryptonite. I'm confident BarelyPolitical will find Obama's comedy kryptonite (his Hawaiinite, if you will) but if by some chance we fail to do this we'll fall back on our strengths: Hillary Clinton impressions, girls dancing, and grown men running around the city in animal costumes.
Jason Reich, executive editor, 236.com:
I'm really not worried about the Obama years. No matter who is in office, people are going to make mistakes, do dumb things...there's going to be a learning curve for any new president or legislator during which funny things will happen. As we learn more about Obama we'll see the things that we can poke fun at. Plus, there's a whole cast of characters that make up the branches of government who aren't specifically the president, who will also be prime targets. When you consider that Bush, who was such a rich vein of material, hasn't really been a topic for comedy in the last year or so, I think it's clear that any thoughtful comedian will be able to mine what's funny from whatever the current situation might be.
I'm freaking out because it's hard, not to mention forbidden, to make fun of your messiah. In all honesty, I'm not nervous that Obama won't make any material-inspiring mistakes -- he already has. His vote on FISA was disappointing (although it does show Obama's in touch with the American people and listening to everything we say). And unless a Native American Lesbian Wicca Priestess delivers part two of Obama's invocation, Rick Warren will not represent inclusion (although the pastor does resemble a big tent). But how can I stay mad? All Obama has to do is smile at Fareed Zakaria or go topless in Hawaii, and my ire and satire melt away. Oh, Obama, I hate myself for loving you.
Jay Jaroch, writer, "Real Time With Bill Maher":
There will be no humor in the new order. You'll learn that in the re-education camps.
Yes, Barack Obama will be slightly harder to make fun of than McCain-Palin. However, I will gladly give up the ease of my job in exchange for a President who doesn't think we can bomb people into loving us and a Vice President who doesn't think 'foreign policy' is how you treat the waiter at a Mexican restaurant. Plus, if you think Obama won't make mistakes worthy of jokes, then you're sorely mistaken. Let's not forget he recently picked Pastor Rick Warren for his inauguration -- a man who thinks gay marriage is equivalent to writing love sonnets to an underage goat. Barack Obama could very well be the next Abraham Lincoln, but even Lincoln had a funny hat!
Steve Young, TV writer and author who blogs at steveyoungonpolitics:
I see comedy entering a more difficult, more painful era. For the past eight years of Bush and Cheney and the intern years of Clinton, we were pretty much stenographers. Come Jan. 20, comics and writers will actually have to make up satire instead of relying on cut and paste inanity lifted directly from political speeches and off the cuff remarks of the newsworthy. Thank God we'll still have Joe Biden, and with Bill O'Reilly continuing to be a nightly factor, it's not like we'll have to generate all the nonsense ourselves.
Evan & Gregg Spiridellis, co-founders of JibJab:
We would like to take this opportunity to calm the fears of satirists everywhere. Barack Obama is (1) a human being and (2) a politician. Those two qualities alone guarantee that there will be a steady stream of raw materials for jokes over the next four to eight years.
Elaina Newport, co-founder of the Capitol Steps comedy troupe:
Of course, every time we lose a president we worry, "Will the next one be funny?" I remember being quite distressed to lose Bill Clinton -- how could George Bush possibly be as good for comedy? But they always come through! In the case of Obama, I'm thinking that this might be the scenario: he's the straight man, surrounded by comedy gold in the form of Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and I think we're also entitled to several second-round draft picks. For now, we are having fun with the fact that the press is so enamored with Barack, in the form of our song "Obama Mia." And Hillary grits her teeth and tries to be happy to be Barack's Secretary of State, in the song "Ebony and Ovaries." But it's true, the worst thing for comedy would be a quietly competent president. Let's hope that doesn't happen!
Sam Means, writer, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," and author of "A Practical Guide to Racism," in character as C.H. Dalton:
How do I plan to survive the Obama years? Law school.
This piece originally appeared in the New York Times' Laugh Lines blog.
Daniel Kurtzman is a journalist and satirist who edits the Political Humor page of About.com, part of The New York Times Company. He is author of the books How to Win a Fight With a Conservative and How to Win a Fight With a Liberal.