Every president and every major politician in the last 20 years has had a comedic identity. Bill Clinton was a charismatic playboy; Bush was a hapless cowboy; Al Gore was a well-informed snooze; John Kerry was a droning old man, as was John McCain; and Sarah Palin was a clueless hockey mom. Now, we have Governor Mitt Romney added to the mix as an out-of-touch rich guy stuck in the 1950s. But while we can easily sum up practically every major politician in recent memory (let’s not forget John Edwards as a pretty, pretty man with an infidelity issue), President Barack Obama's comedy peg isn’t exactly staring us in the face.
When he first became a candidate for president, Obama’s “thing” was that he was “cool.” He was young and with it. His soft spot for basketball, hobnobbing with celebrities, and an actual appreciation for Miles Davis set him apart from other, stuffy politicians. From the now classic Saturday Night Live faux-campaign ad
“Be Cool” to his memetastic presence as the “Not Bad” guy (left) — thanks to a hilarious nonchalant expression he made being captured by a photographer — Obama made an initial comedy imprint as the coolest politician alive. “He was super hip and super cool and all the kids just loved him," says Comedy Central's Indecision.cc.com Editorial Producer Mary Phillips-Sandy. "There was definitely a sense of wanting to sort of take that and looking at him and that persona and the way he was being perceived and sort of just finding the humor in how over the top it got.” And as time wore on, that peg didn’t exactly dissipate. Instead, it got a few bedfellows.
After we settled into the idea that Obama is a righteous dude, we started to notice him as something cool people tend to become: a celebrity. He wasn’t just the leader of the free world, he was a guy whose wife wears Michael Kors and Jason Wu dresses. He was a guy whose daughters could heighten the popularity of Uglydolls by dangling miniature ones on their school backpacks. He’s a guy who might get photographed by the paparazzi when he takes a dip in the ocean, much like any bikini-clad Kardashian. It was a status that had been brewing since he faced off against Hillary Clinton in the 2007 primary; just look at his “surprise” appearance on SNL, during which he removed an Obama mask to reveal himself to thunderous applause, accepting it like the most seasoned of celebrities. (Sure, Gore and McCain have both hosted the late night show, but their awkward appearances hardly had the same panache.) Add to this the public’s obsession with the inner-workings of Michelle and Barack at home and the Obamas’ friendship with pop culture and hip-hop royalty Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and Obama is practically the new George Clooney. But even Obama's celebrity is still not used for comedy.
Despite being both really, really ridiculously cool and a major celebrity, Obama still boasts another personality quirk. While wildly discordant with his other public traits, the quirk been referenced in comedy bits ranging from Fred Armisen’s now-dormant SNL impression, to The Daily Show’s approach, to Key and Peele’s name-making impression of a calm Obama assisted by a boisterous “anger translator.” It’s his unflinching stoicism. It’s the notion that while the president smiles often and genuinely, he’s not going to flash those pearly whites unless he’s already decided, hours before, that he should do so. It’s a meticulousness that begs notice.
And that’s where it becomes obvious that the President’s comedy profile isn’t as easy to peg as the country's other famous politicians'. How can he be the cool, hip celebrity and the well-read, highly-intellectual, thoughtful, and stoic leader? Our pithy representations don’t usually allow room for that much variation. How can he be the guy who sings Al Green songs at the Apollo and the guy who’s so stifled that we’re inclined to imagine all the frustration going on in his head? How can he be all those things in the realm of pop culture, a place that loves to boil politicians down to their most ostentatious characteristics? “It feels more nuanced, [determining] what would be the characteristics of Obama in comedy," says the artistic director of New York’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade theater, Nate Dern. "It’s not a one-note thing.”
Depending on where you look, different comedic outlets are picking up on varying subtleties of his personality. But why has Obama escaped the fates of all presidents and presidential candidates before him? (Heck, even Gerald Ford became “the falling president,” thanks to Chevy Chase’s inflectionless impression.) To be fair, many folks started off on the wrong foot with Obama-centric comedy. Phillips-Sandy points out that when Obama first hit the national stage, some folks in the comedy world feared there was no humor to be found in the could-be president. “I remember back in 2008 reading all these [articles] and people were saying, ‘Oh, how are we ever going to make fun of Obama?’ And that was fascinating to me that that was even a question,” she says.
But clearly those naysayers were wrong; over the past four years, Obama has been a presence throughout comedy — after all, how could something like SNL, The Daily Show, or any comedy platform go four years without joking about the POTUS? They wouldn’t make it. “I think that, more than anything, revealed an inherent bias or confusion that some people are untouchable, but no one is,” Phillips-Sandy says.
The entertainment industry has indeed long been accused of harboring a liberal bias. But is that what's keeping Obama from being tapped by pop culture? Let's investigate.