Humor in Times of Crisis:

I've Tivo'ed a number of recent programs on Winston Churchill recently, and have noted that he had a remarkable gift of showing leadership and building solidarity through the use of humor in times of crisis, i.e., WWII. He would often sort of poke fun at Hitler and the Nazi and thereby cut them down to a size where the British felt that the Germans were beatable as well as bolstering British morale that they must eventually prevail. Reagan too, was able to do this during the Cold War by poking fun at the Soviet economy (like the old jokes about the giant nail or the electrician appointment ten years hence "in the afternoon"). These were both deadly serious times, but somehow both Churchill and Reagan could use humor to unite their countries and humanize the enemy by bringing them down to size.

My impression is that the humor has gone out of politics, especially on serious subjects. If so, why is that? One explanation could be that politicians these days are essentially humorless--they are so heavily stage-managed and scripted that there is no room for humor. Or second, could this be another casualty of partisanship and the 24-hour news cycle? My impression is that attempts to use humor today, especially about serious subjects, run the risk of being pounced upon and brandished as evidence of a lack of "seriousness" or "concern" about the subject matter. Third, perhaps there is something about the type of threats we face today (terrorism, for instance), that mean that they are simply are not amenable to humor in the same way as WWII or the Cold War.

I don't know the answer, but watching Churchill, it is amazing how he could use humor to deflate very tense discussions--you simply feel a deep relief when you smile and laugh along with him. For many reasons, it seems like we could use that sort of influence today in politics.

If anyone has any thoughts on this, I would be interested in hearing them.

Wilson (mail):
It's possible that there is just no Churchill or Reagan in politics today who is capable of a tasteful and appropriate joke about a serious subject. Perhaps the handlers would let someone with the charisma to pull it off actually use that humour.

But I'm just being devil's advocate here. I really agree that it probably has more to do with an overwhelming sensativity and seriousness in the press. Heck, Arnold's tried to be funny, but it's hard to tell whether or not he's just not funny or the press isn't being fair to him.
7.15.2005 10:38am

I think the reason that Ahnuld flops is that his jokes, while not all related to his movie roles, tend to either have something to do with his films or bodybuilding. While they might have been able to elicit a chuckle in the beginning of his political career, after time, they grow stale because the subject matter is the same each time. He's just got to get some new material.
7.15.2005 10:51am
Andrew E. Adel (mail):
It seems to me that one of the reasons for this is that politicians sense a need, not to make people take terrorism less seriously, but to make them take it more seriously. A lot of people on the left -- and, I'm sure, plenty on the right for that matter -- who do not take the issue seriously enough. Case in point: Michael "There Is No Terrorist Threat" Moore.

Perhaps another reason might relate to one of the underlying purposes of humor, which is to counteract fear. Although many people might feel some background anxiety about terrorism, I'm not sure that a lot feal genuine fear; certainly not the fear of Londoners during the Blitz. My memory fails, but I wonder what Giuliani was saying to New Yorkers in the days after 9/11. I would not be surprised to find a higher humor quotient there.
7.15.2005 11:07am
Phil (mail):
I think it's a combination of two factors. One) Politics is more cut throat than it used to be. LBJ had a huge majority in the Senate, yet he still invited the Republican majority leader in to meet once a week, talk, disagree, etc. LBJ respected him. Second) Like you said, the media is different today and with CNN/FOX News/MSNBC, if ANYONE got offended (which everyone seems to get offended about everything now-a-days), then they would trounce on it.
7.15.2005 11:08am
The problem is that any joke which is funny has a butt; someone is on the receiving end. Society is so exceissively sensitive (and litigious) that it would seem unwise for a politician to risk offending anyone, lest it turn into a carnival.
7.15.2005 11:17am
The news media and special interest groups would decry humor as insensitive or unwarranted. If the president were a Dem joking in a time of war, the conservatives would kill him for being soft. If the president were GOP, the liberals would kill him for being insensitive and warmongering.

Just look at the reaction to Bush's jokes about the missing WMDs at the press dinner. Yes, it's a slightly different situation than the type to which you referred. But it's a forum where campy humor is expected and yet Bush is getting hammered for making a few self-deprecating jokes.
7.15.2005 11:44am
I've read psychologists who claim that self-deprecating humor is a necessary characteristic of the mentally healthy. It looks to me that most politicians do this quite well -- or at least they used to. Al Gore with his jokes about identifying him in a crowd of secret service agents (Gore is the stiff one). Bush with his jokes about the malaprops. In fact, thinking back over the presidents I've experienced when I was old enough to pay attention to the news, Clinton, Dole, Bush 41 (doing Dana Carvey doing Bush), Reagan (killer trees), Carter (killer rabbit), Ford (falling down stairs), all had (still have) that easy put-people-at-ease cheerfulness.

Of all presidential candidates, successful or unsuccessful, it looks to me like John Kerry is the first humorless one we've had since Richard Nixon. One thing that I see as a clear differentiation between the reasonable left and the unhinged loony left is that the latter will seize on every cheerful self-deprecating little witticism coming out of Bush and scream, "AHA!!! HE HAS ADMITTED TO HIS IDIOCY!!!" Those of us who are not deranged react by edging slowly away while thinking, "no, hon, somebody just admitted to idiocy all right, but it ain't Bush..."

cathy :-)
7.15.2005 11:45am
Scott Scheule (mail) (www):
So three terrorists, John F. Kennedy, and Jason Alexander walk into a bar...
7.15.2005 12:18pm
erp (mail):
It's been said that all humor is conservative and since the media are anti-conservative, can there be any public humor?

Personally, I've found that irony and satire are lost on liberal friends. They just don't get it.
7.15.2005 12:30pm
Joe Henchman (mail):
"I've decided to be a dull, morose bore at these press meetings. It's the only safe course. You give me no choice. I tell a joke and you convert it into an international incident. I coin a whimsical term and you make it appear I am at odds with the President. I indulge in some polite banter and you interpret it as a split in the Party."

-Sen. Everett Dirksen
7.15.2005 12:39pm
G_G (mail):
A "highly placed media source"* revealed to me that Clinton could tell jokes well, but would do it off the record. It was probably to avoid compounding his image as a risque president.

* cameraman for local network affiliate who covered a campaign stop of Bill's back in '92. Bill made sure he wasn't taping before telling a joke.
7.15.2005 1:00pm
Goober (mail):
Consider observer/medium bias: They might be about as funny, but they don't get reported or you otherwise don't think of them as fondly as the good old days. Plus it might seem to journalists to be beneath their dignity to transcribe jokes; Clinton had quite a few jokes or at least funny moments that I recall hearing in live broadcasts, but seldom saw reported in later accounts.
7.15.2005 1:02pm
anonymous (mail):
"My impression is that the humor has gone out of politics".

Everything we "see" is filtered by the biased media, who are on a mission to portray conservative leaders as humorless. We're in a culture war.

There is plenty of self-deprecating humorous content happening out there that is not getting reported, i.e exposed to the American public.
7.15.2005 1:46pm
gst (mail):
We need a Hogan's Heroes about an Al Queda hostage holding facility. We could laugh at the bumbling Islamist versions of Col. Klink and Sgt. Schultz. Of course, it would be something of a downer when to end each weekly episode they sawed off the head of a captive.

John Podhoretz at NRO reports that Albert Brooks is working on a picture where he plays a US comedy actor/writer/director on a mission from the US government to determine what the Muslim world finds funny, to be called "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World." I initially thought that was quite brave until I remembered that he already has a fatwa pending for his 1996 movie "Mother."
7.15.2005 2:26pm
Nothing is funny anymore. It's really depressing and lonely.

An interesting science fiction story can be written about a society where humour has become taboo. There's surely a colourable argument that terrorism and other evil share in common their humourlessness.

Think of all the supervillains in the comics and the movies. They cackle and laugh, but never at anything funny. Only at suffering or the anticipation of suffering.

I could sure go for a knock knock joke right now.
7.15.2005 2:29pm
The problem, I tihnk, is that politicians on both sides spend so much effort trying to stay "on message," that they don't ever think for themselves, at least not publically. In the sound bite culture, the only real opportunity for humor is the one-liner, ideally improvised, a la Jon Stewart. There are opportunities for this on every episode of Hardball, e.g., but all the mental gears in (say) Joe Biden's head are directed at repeating the next talking point in the row. I'm not sure it has anything to do with liberal/conservative. Ann Coulter tries to be funny, but she's really not.

My favorite Churchillism is that, upon seeing Clement Attlee in the men's room, he said "get away from me, Clement. Every time you see something big, you want to nationalize it." But this is behind-the-scenes humor. I don't think his radio addresses, or FDR's fireside chats, were very funny.
7.15.2005 2:30pm
Eh Nonymous (mail) (www):
Gosh, y'all are a substantially gloomy bunch.

"All humor is conservative"? My goodness, is that really even said? If so, is it said with a straight face, or tongue in cheek? Carlin would be somewhat surprised to hear that, I think. So might Lenny Bruce. So might Pryor, and Cosby, and Chris Rock. It's possible that whoever wrote that

a) doesn't think liberal or progressive or radical or outrageous comedy is funny, and
b) thinks conservative humor is very funny.

But people who feel that way, or the reverse, aren't right. They're just subjective. Here's an area where "lefty" universal subjectivism is really true: like sex, humor is utterly and inherently subjective. That's why, Internet lore to the contrary, there's no agreement on what is really the world's funniest joke.

Who was it up here who said everything was depressing? Man, are you in need of medication? How about a hug? Drugs? Roller derby? You need to snap out of it. Unless it was sarcasm, in which case please use [sarcasm] tags, or smileys. We on the Internet are Humorless, as you know, and miss such subtlety.

I was depressed by 9/11, more than angered, after I got done being afraid. I was depressed by 2/1/2002 as well. Also by the disastrous presidential elections just past, and the one before that. But I pick myself up, and hope in my heart that the country will survive even this, and make plans for today and tomorrow.

Humor lets people get by in tough times.

I think that was the point of this post.

Some liberals may not be laughing lately. They should. It's a scary time, with a lot of very self-important and very deluded folks out there. Someone mentioned Michael Moore. I would tentatively agree, although he can be funny, and add a number of righty blowhards.

I don't think Churchill was my kind of genius. Historical figures, like humor, are subjective.

Scott's comment was pretty funny ("three terrorists, JFK, and Jason Alexander walk into a bar"). Here's my response:

Three traitors, Karl Rove, Michele Malkin, and Ann Coulter walk into a bar. So Karl turns to the other two...
7.15.2005 3:14pm
Joan of Argghh! (mail):
Just look at the confused commentors on Greg Gutfeld's posts at the HuffPo and all will become clear: the Left is irony-impaired. Without an irony-indicator that functions properly, humor is impossible. It's like uh, rain, on your wedding day. Or something...
7.15.2005 3:31pm
ed in texas (mail):
" Oh, that was irony! I get it! We don't do irony around here. I was the only practitioner, and I got tired of people staring at me." -Steve Martin, Roxanne
Basically, we've reached the point where we can't offend our opponents by not taking them seriously.
7.15.2005 3:47pm
Chris in Ky.:
I love this debate. Turning humor into a liberal/conservative argument? Frankly, I think I'm the only one in the world with a sense of humor, and nobody else gets my irony or my sarcasm.
7.15.2005 4:06pm
Zywicki (mail):
An interesting email from a reader that I pass along:

My idea: humor represents a kind of mental play
--stepping outside of the categories or the frame that people are using.
It's that surprise that makes us laugh. And play requires a certain kind of
confidence: in knowing the subject well enough to see the possibilities for
humor, in knowing your own ability to create a joke that doesn't fall flat,
in knowing your audience and trusting them to "play" with you. The play of
humor is an invitation to engage, between jokester and audience, in
exploring a little of the absurdity of the world. Play cannot work unless
both sides are willing to play; play cannot work if the politician is too
tightly "handled," by his team or his own superego, fearing the
counterattacks from overinterpreting lemon-sucking spinmeisters. Play
requires the confidence to accept failure. Most politicians, indeed most
"leaders" in any field, are today strongly involved with or beholden to
investors of one kind or another (a political movement is a kind of
"investor syndicate"). So much rides on them not failing, in playing not to
lose, that they cannot let their imaginations work toward humor. It's a
blind spot. And a great loss for all of us. A good sense of humor can make
a huge strategic difference in morale and approach when tackling a problem
--at the individual or at the collective level.
7.15.2005 4:54pm
Scipio (mail) (www):
Let's face it, folks. Despite appearances to the contrary, Communism won.

In Soviet Russia, jokes tell you.
7.15.2005 5:06pm
ChuckL (mail):
I think what we have here (besides "a failure to communicate") is the politicization of sensitivity rather than real sensitivity. It seems to me that most supposed sensitivity on matters of culture, ethnicity, race, gender, etc. is in fact phony, conjured or pretended for political impact. With repetition, expressions of "offense" or "outrage" become genuinely emotional as well as politically motivated, but the basis of the emotion is mob psychology rather than genuine sensitivity about the supposed initial "offense."

The only solution is to remove more and more issues from the realm of politics by radically restricting the scope of that which is a legitimate concern of government. Restrict the number of political prizes and you reduce the fighting over them. But that would require massive repeal of legislation, every bit of which has created consituencies with interests that would be harmed by repeal, so I'm not optimistic.
7.15.2005 5:22pm
Splunge (mail):
I'm going to disagree with the Mr. Zywicki's premise. History is a highly compressed view of reality. It only records the highest (or lowest) points of Churchill's leadership, for example, which includes only his best moments as a leader -- charming but determined, with just the right light touch of humor. I'm sure at the time he had plenty of leaden inept moments, but they didn't get written down or remembered, and they aren't shown in TV specials on his life today.

The difference with today's leaders is that we're living through their actions, in real time, not reading a condensed summary of 'em fifty years hence, in which only the non-boring significant stuff is related.

I could be wrong, of course. Maybe politicians really were funnier 50 or 150 or 1,500 years ago. But a priori I sorta doubt it, since it's asking a lot for mere technological changes in information flow to fundamentally change the way we human beans like our leaders to act, after umpty years of evolution have wired it up in our DNA.

I'd say this premise needs a lot better evidence than a vague feeling that "things were better in the past," which is, ah, hardly a unique sentiment for introspective middle-age folk to spontaneously express.
7.15.2005 6:12pm
Dr. Freud (mail):
I'm a bit late to the party, but I think the fundamental problem is that it is hard to be lighthearted in a room that is filled with seething hatred. We live in an era of near delusional partisanship. I don't think I have ever experienced such bitterness since the Watergate years. A joking Republican would be walking a tightrope that no sensible pol would dare. Remember how Clarence Thomas's jokes came back years later?

The Democrats, however, continue to joke a bit. Remember Hillary's recent Alfred E. Newman "joke?" Howard Dean is also quite the commedian.
7.16.2005 11:30am
Fred (mail):
Mmmm, I think it's mostly hindsight. I remember when Reagan was President and it seemed then that every time he made a humorous comment his opponents tried to direct it back to him and present him as uncaring and out of touch. That's partly how he got his reputation as "The Teflon President" because he didn't let it affect him and just kept right on going.
Although I disagree with his politics I think Al Gore can be quite funny when he's not on the campaign trail. I understand that Bob Dole has a devastatingly funny dry and self-depreciating wit. I'm also sure that part of Clinton's legendary charm is an ability to be "one of the guys" which would naturally involve some good humor. My understanding is that Bush is also quite the charmer and quite a regular guy but probably not as understated as Dole or as genial as Reagan.
I recall watching the Daily Show a few nights back and they showed the freeze frame of the time several years back when in prep before coming on the air Bush casually flipped off the camera. Needless to say it was not presented in a "here's how George acts up when blowing off steam and releiving tension in himself and with the people he's working with" it was presented as childish and immature and unpresidential. Which in some ways it was (of course I think the clip was from when he was either the Governor of Texas or running for Governor) but it was also not done for public consumption. Then, as has previously been mentioned, there's the flack President Bush got for the WMD jokes.

So I think that in a few years people are going to be remembering and realizing the GW had a few good humorous moments too.
7.17.2005 12:23am
J (mail):
(1) We already feel superior to our opponents; we don't have the same sort of occasional doubt that we did in the cold war (when the USSR looked like a juggernaut) or WWII (when Germany looked the same to Britain). It's not often that the US feels stymied (or seriously threatened) by another country.

(2) Even when we do (at least) get extremely frustrated with another country, the friend/enemy lines are not as strikingly drawn. France is an ally, but was a temporary political/rhetorical enemy re Iraq; there were certainly French jokes going around, but it would be dangerous for a politician to make one (just as Chirac's anti-British jokes have recently gotten him into trouble). Arafat was a very frustrating foe, saying one thing to our face and the opposite to his friends, but we couldn't afford to make public jokes about him while trying to be an "honest broker".

(3) Whatever is said today by the president (or other high officials) of the US gets broadcast around the world. Reagan found that out with his "we begin bombing in 5 minutes" joke; it's even more true today. If we're trying to win hearts &minds of potential terrorists, making jokes about them (and/or their favorite leaders) that they're sure to hear is probably a bad idea.
7.17.2005 6:26pm
Keith L. (mail):
Humor still seems to have a place in politics, but it is a very different kind. I'm thinking mostly of the customary appearances of important politicians on shows like Saturday Night Live, David Letterman, or the Tonight Show. Al Gore, Steve Forbes, John McCain, Bob Dole, and Rudy Giuliani have all done this. Even Bush the Elder appeared on SNL to poke fun at Dana Carvey. Most perform terribly and awkwardly, some get a few laughs and manage for the most part to avoid making fools of themselves. But it strikes me that, these days, they do these appearances not to communicate a message with humor, but out of a desperation to prove that they're actually real people with real emotions and not fake political robots. They need to prove they can take a joke. Of course, most of them, in doing these appearances, only manage to prove their desperation.
7.18.2005 2:32pm