I always admire when a politician tries to crack wise. It’s a risk where the possible negatives (looking like an idiot, offending someone) outweigh the possible positives (laughter), and many politicians – particularly in the 24/7 YouTube/Twitter news cycle – are afraid to try.
So from my own experience and observation, let me offer “Four Tips on Political Joke-telling” to those who do.
1. If you’re going to spoof someone, start with yourself. A joke can overcome some of the distance that may exist between a public figure and the public. You connect with some laughter and the listener walks away thinking, “You know, that guy’s all right. I’m going to vote for him and subscribe to his YouTube channel!” And the best way to accomplish this is with genial, self-deprecating humor. It shows you don’t take yourself too seriously.
For example, here’s President Bush fielding a question on the film “Brokeback Mountain” with some good humor. Unlike a standard setup/punchline joke, Bush didn’t have any chance to rehearse this (though he had to know it was coming eventually).
He doesn’t make any political statements, he doesn’t try to duck the question, he just acknowledges that he was, perhaps, not the target demographic for that film.
2. Beware of jokes getting stale.Politicians have to give the same stump speech over and over and over again. Consistency in your message about current affairs and your philosophy is essential; people won’t mind if they hear the same talking points about tax policy, but they’ll probably get sick of the same joke.
For example, The Daily Show’s use of the phrase “Indecision” to describe its election coverage got old in 2004. Though they do periodically make jokes about their overuse of it (following rule #1).
Aside: Comedy Central’s “Indecision” website has some choice highlights from Wednesday’s joke-o-rama. They conclude “The funniest member of Congress may be a conservative Mormon Republican from Utah. No joke.”
3. Don’t tell a joke you don’t get. Frequently (as by media accounts is true in Chaffetz’s case), a politician will bring in a professional joke writer to punch up his material. This is usually a good idea, but not if the joke writer puts in something the speaker himself does not find funny. Don’t write a joke about Justin Bieber for someone who may accidentally call him “Justice Beaver.”
4. Don’t be mean-spirited. If the purpose of a politician’s joke-telling is to humanize himself and connect with the audience, anything mean-spirited could poison the well. Chaffetz’s wisecrack about, "Orrin Hatch has a new 8-track tape out that he is marketing through Woolworth's!" show’s that there may still be some resentment over the fact that Hatch is a Senator and Chaffetz is not.
Like I said, joke telling can be risky for a politician, and should hardly be considered as a prerequisite for holding public office. So kudos to those who try … after all, with skyrocketing medical costs for the government, the only medicine our leaders can afford may be laughter.