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Jun 26, 2024

Humoring Humorless Politicians Just Isn’t Funny

Please make us happy, not hysterical

By Ed Goldman

As the Debate of the Century looms—oh, sorry, I forgot for a moment that I don’t work for CNN or Fox. Let’s hit RESTART.

As the whining of two elderly men looms—part of a race so lame that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a 70-year-old with acid reflux as well as a brain that was partially eaten by a worm, is being seen as a potential spoiler—I thought I’d take a moment to mourn the passing of wit in American politics.

Edgy Cartoon

Be careful what you wish upon a star for

In a recent appearance, convicted felon Donald J. Trump praised “the late great Hannibal Lecter,” the fictional, intellectual cannibal from “The Silence of the Lambs” as well as a prequel and sequel. Lecter, Trump said, “had a friend for dinner.” He told this gag (for that’s what it was and what it made me do) to a huge crowd. Its reaction was—and here’s a chance to learn Yiddish!—pure bubkis. In Español, nada. In English, crickets. (At the end of today’s column, we’ll give The Donald a better cannibalism joke, at no extra charge.)

Meanwhile, in securing a date for the debate, Joe Biden suggested they have it on a Wednesday because that was when Trump seemed to be available. The reference was to the day off every week during Trump’s hush-money criminal trial (as opposed to his other upcoming, ongoing and likely futile criminal trials). There was no in-person audience for Joe’s one-liner to bomb in front of—in fact, he seemed to be barely in-person—yet it still fell flat. What went wrong? 

I gave a talk on humor 37 years ago to the California Writer’s conference at Asilomar, the semi-rustic retreat near Monterey. During the post-speech Q&A, a woman stood up and described her dilemma. “I write humor pieces and every editor I send them to passes on them,” she lamented. “Then I show them to my family and friends and they don’t care for them, either. Why do you think this happens?”

Before thinking through what the unfortunate reaction could (and would) be, I blurted out, “Maybe you’re not funny.” 

You’d think I had just told the funniest joke of the 20th century, not including the 1958 Edsel. The audience of about 350 laughed, first in unison, then in little waves that kept erupting. I was about to say something semi-apologetic but the woman threw up her arms and stormed out of the room (eliciting a fine round of applause, I might add). 

I felt kind of bad about it. Not terrible, just kind of bad. After all, I’d told the truth and not been deliberately cruel. She bravely showed up at the cocktail reception that evening, came up to me and, perhaps emboldened by a few glasses of white wine, asked a compound question about whether I had testicles and if so, where were they? Her friends were torn between pulling her away and also seeing if I’d respond. So I said, “Yes, and the expected location.” Again, this backfired for her since her loyalists burst out laughing—and this time, thank God, they managed to firmly remove her from the room.

The point is that she really wasn’t funny. Nor are Trump and Biden. Nor is almost every politician who tries to be. 

Adlai Stevenson, who famously ran twice against Dwight D. Eisenhower for the presidency and lost both times, did manage to say some witty stuff. During one of his campaigns, he said, “I have been thinking that I would make a proposition to my Republican friends—that if they stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them.”

Lest you think I’m being partisan, here are two quips by President Ronald Reagan: 

  1. “I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of national emergency—even if I’m in a Cabinet meeting.”
  2. “Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.”
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Now, it must be said that in every case except Stevenson, it’s doubtful that the joker wrote his own joke. I’ve written jokes for a handful of elected officials over the years and found it alternately gratifying (when they could ably deliver the lines) and unintentionally hysterical—as when a Sacramento city councilman known for having absolutely no sense of humor asked me to write a joke for a speech he was going to give at the dedication of a neighborhood community center. I don’t recall the joke, which he rendered lifeless by reading it verbatim. But what got a huge laugh was when he read aloud my post-joke parenthetical instruction, “Pause for laugh.”

With your permission, I shall now do the same. But first, as promised, an improved Hannibal Lecter joke for The Man Who Would Be Kaiser. Two guests arrived late for a dinner at Hannibal Lecter’s home. “We’re so sorry,” they gushed apologetically. “So am I,” said Lecter. “Everybody’s eaten.”

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).