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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Problem with Obama and Comedy

Posted by Erik Henriksen on Tue, Mar 11, 2014 at 11:57 AM

I keep getting excited to see President Barack Obama be charming on things! There was this morning's Between Two Ferns, and then a few days ago there was his introduction to Sunday's Cosmos premiere! As Steve pointed out this morning, Obama's Between Two Ferns appearance was genuinely funny—and as I'll point out right now, Obama's Cosmos intro packed about as much inspiration into 30 seconds as is humanly possible.

But there's also something kind of... off about both of those videos, and it's taking me a while to figure out what it is, exactly, so bear with me. Alison sent me Jonathan Coe's "Sinking Giggling into the Sea" this morning after watching the Between Two Ferns, and that's definitely got something to do with it. Read it, and try not to think of television's two most consistently great comedy sources, The Daily Show and Fox News, during the part about how mocking the establishment "has less in common with satire than with community hymn-singing—agreeable and heartwarming as that may be."

I don't necessarily agree with every aspect of Coe's piece, but it's worth keeping in mind that people in positions of power have no doubt realized that—in "an age when politicians are judged first of all on personality, when the public assumes all of them to be deceitful, and when it’s easier and much more pleasurable to laugh about a political issue than to think about it"—the best way to diffuse criticism is to play along with those doing the criticizing.

Which brings us back to Between Two Ferns, in which the disastrous Obamacare rollout is compared to the Zune and everybody has a good laugh, and everybody thinks "Holy shit, Galifianakis got Obama," and then, right around the point when Galifianakis starts pretending to get bored by what Obama's saying—and right around the time we start to get bored by what Obama's saying—we realize why Galifianakis got Obama: Because twentysomethings who dick around on the internet are exactly the people Obamacare needs in order to succeed, and twentysomethings dick around on the internet by watching Between Two Ferns. The whole thing is a funny sales pitch, but it's still a sales pitch; we're laughing even as we're being manipulated.

The Ferns bit, in particular, me think of something else about another powerful American leader. It's this chunk in Douglas Martin's piece about the death of Harold Ramis:

“More than anyone else,” Paul Weingarten wrote in The Chicago Tribune Magazine in 1983, “Harold Ramis has shaped this generation’s ideas of what is funny.”

And to Mr. Ramis, the fact was that “comedy is inherently subversive.”

“We represent the underdog as comedy usually speaks for the lower classes,” Mr. Ramis once said. “We attack the winners.” (Via.)

Maybe that gets at why the Between Two Ferns bit feels calculated—it's comedy, but it's also coming from the establishment, and if there's one thing decades of great comedy from the likes of Ramis (and, more recently, Galifianakis) have taught us, it's that established systems need to be relentlessly, unforgivingly questioned.

I will say, though, that I feel a lot better about Between Two Ferns than I do about the Cosmos bit—probably because it's hard not to feel like Obama's still the underdog when it comes to making Obamacare work, which means it's hard not to cut him some slack when it comes to trying to sell it in any way he can, even if that's on a Funny or Die video. On the other hand, if Obama really cared about the kind of stuff that Cosmos is about, he could make more meaningful gestures than recording an inspirational 30-second intro. Like cutting NASA a bigger check.

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