May 192009

President Obama likes to have himself compared to Abraham Lincoln, but there is one area in which he is about as opposite to A. Lincoln as one can get. Lincoln was probably the best storytelling jokester among our presidents, while Obama is the leading contender for worst.

There was the one about a snow day in Washington D.C., which was merely stupid. At the time I suggested that if that was his idea of stand-up comedy, he should not quit his day job.

Then there was the one about the Special Olympics — a real belly-slapper from Mr. I-want-my-Supreme-Court-nominee-to-empathize.

Most recently he made a joke about using the IRS to punish people he doesn’t like. It’s like what they say about making a joke about your spouse having an affair: If it’s true, it’s not funny. If it’s not true, it’s not funny.

As Glenn Harlan Reynolds suggests, this comes after letting Timmy TurboTax get rewarded with a big salary for doing something that would get his new employes fired. To say nothing of the fact that if IRS employees made jokes like this for the purpose of making a threat (and all jokes are partly serious) they could be fired for it.

And now David Axelrod is getting in on the act.

In Gerald J. Prokopowicz’s book about Lincoln, he points out that Lincoln’s jokes relied on context. He says his least favorite Lincoln question is one that asks which is the funniest joke:

Humor tends to be specific to its time and place, and what seemed funny to the nineteenth often falls flat in the twenty-first. To make matters worse, Lincoln’s jokes were not stand-alone sound bites. They relied heavily on context. Lincoln’s speeches to the Scott Club of Springfield in 1852, for example, are the funniest things he ever wrote. They had the audience shrieking with laughter — I still find it difficult to read them without snorting audibly — but to get to the good parts you have to read several pages of setup, and once you get there the punch lines don’t work unless you already know something about Franklin Pierce, Winfield Scott, and Lincoln’s relationship with Stephen Douglas.

Hmmm. 1852. I have a Spokesrider article about a joke-telling session that took place in that year. And it, too, involved Franklin Pierce and Winfield Scott. But I digress.

Context may have been necessary for Lincoln’s jokes, but context is not Obama’s friend. And Obama doesn’t have to wait a couple of centuries for his jokes to fall flat.

Which reminds me, here’s a one-liner joke that some have attributed to Lincoln, though I wouldn’t want to wager any money that it really is one he invented:

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.