Political Punchlines

Freud believed jokes bubble up from the subconscious, like sex, stripping us clean, revealing us as the animals we are. In this sense the joke is the instinctive, unthinking legislator of mankind, more critical in an election year -- because politics runs just behind amour as a prime subject for comedy -- than polls or weighty analysis. Where do you see the latest, hottest quips about Gore, Bush, Lieberman, Cheney, Nader and Buchanan? The Web is where both the quantity and the timing are -- despite the elite edge available on the street, late-night TV or the Borscht Belt. Ask any search engine to take you to "Political Joke of the Day" and you'll find the Truth, in countless versions. Best of all, anybody can add to the total anytime.

Last Friday, Google.com listed 16,100 Gore jokes, compared to 11,700 for W; and among the veeps, Lieberman took Cheney 461 to 274. If you believe the Sigmund Thesis, the volatile up-down quality of our political mood is best tracked this way. Just before the Democratic convention, for example, W began to challenge Gore in both the mood and numbers of jokes. "Little Dumbo" changed places with "Big Stiff." Since Al deep-kissed Tipper and his poll numbers rose, he's on top in the sheer number of jokes. But the mood swing has been in his favor. Now the jokes are about Gore the tub-thumping Wife-Lover, not Gore the Bore. A recent salacious cartoon depicted Al dialing "1-800-Hot Babes" while Bill and Janet Reno leered.

Why? Satiation, in part. After thousands of Al the Dull quips, it's hard to find anything new to say on this score. Just in time, Gore seems to have played out his primordial role as class dullard. How many times can you listen to variations on Al correcting Bill when he says "quickie" rather than "quiche" to the waitress? Whether Al or Formica or the FBI agent is stiffer? On "dressing" for sex with Tipper? Al Franken reached way down to hit Al's tipping point (no pun meant) last month, preconvention, joking that from now on Gore's going to save our timberlands by recycling the wooden stick up his ass rather than inserting a new one every day. Nowhere to go after that. And Gore slyly keeps repeating Gore jokes himself, ensuring their death.

George W. mostly responds to his Dumbo image with thin-skinned, tight-lipped fury, making him a more appealing target. Last year, for example, he raged in public against the brilliant "Unofficial Official" Bush website devised by RtMark, a group of cranky digital artists, handing them millions of hits. Surely this explains all the parody anti-W sites, from About.com's "Dubya, If Only We Knew Ya" to "The Georgy Bush Project" to www.gwbush.com, where you'll find poison-pen "prisoner letters" written by a captive audience. Surely this is why W is now reaching a tipping point of his own, based on his alleged stupidity, reminiscent of the condescending Quayle jokes of 1992. They're not like the mushy, charming Reaganisms that circulated in the 80s, when we saw Reagan depicted as an amiable, dozing bumbler, not a danger to the republic. These are more like this one, which recently made the e-mail rounds:

Nader, Gore and W went to a fitness spa for some fun (if you believe Nader ever has fun) and relaxation (if you believe Gore ever relaxes). After a healthy lunch, all three decided to visit the men's room and found a strange-looking gent sitting at the entrance who said, "Welcome to the gentlemen's room. Be sure to check out our newest feature: a mirror that, if you look into it and say something truthful, you will be awarded with a wish. But, be warned -- if you say something false, you'll be sucked into the mirror to live in a void of nothingness for all eternity." They entered, and on finding the mirror Nader said, "I think I'm the most truthful of us three." In an instant he was surrounded by a pile of money, which I suppose he invested in tech stocks. Gore stepped up and said, "I think I'm the most ambitious of us three," and he suddenly found the keys to a brand new Lexus in his hands, which he liked because it looked better than the Veep's car. Excited over the possibility of having a wish come true, W looked into the mirror and said, "I think" -- and was promptly sucked into the void.

Several reasons why this joke ought to shake the GOP. It was ubiquitous. Its curt, quick punchline confidently assumes we all think W is stupid. And this is bad, because most of us would rather have a (sexy or boring) president with a high IQ than a charmer who's dumb. I know this last point flies in the face of media assumptions about the American voter. Not long ago, after a day of reading Dumb W jokes, I tuned into CNN and found solemn, well-paid analysts assuring us that no matter how good Gore is in repartee, he still isn't as "likable" as W. That even if W is murdered in the fall debates, he will still win because Ma and Pa will "like" him and "dislike" Gore.

What a wealth of history this ignores! Nixon, probably the least "likable" candidate for president in history, won twice, over ingratiating rivals, one of them (McGovern) an authentic war hero. At the high school prom, handsome Barry Goldwater, not Lyndon Johnson, would have dated the queen. Among the totally distasteful or wooden personalities elected in the 20th century -- a century obsessed with the "personality" -- were Calvin Coolidge, Woodrow Wilson and George Bush the Elder. The truth is we actually worry about the candidate's IQ. Very few of us want to put Dumbo's finger on the nuclear trigger or the economy or healthcare. Intelligence -- or the perception of intelligence -- matters hugely in all final electoral decisions, according to exit polls. Carter defeated Ford in 1976 not because of his Peanut Smile but because the voters perceived him as intelligent and capable. He lost in 1980 because his economic policies didn't work, not because Ronald Reagan was lovable. And Reagan devastated Mondale, a more nimble debater, with a booming economy -- well before Ollie North and the Contra war scandals depressed his popularity.

Yes, JFK is an exception. So is Clinton. I contend that Clinton's current high approval rating is positively fueled by the tens of thousands of sex jokes swamping his name on the Web. Gore might consider a little serious public petting next. Lustiness doesn't threaten voters the way a low IQ does. Here I take issue with Sigmund. Jokes don't simply bubble up through our veins and emotions. They filter through our brains, too.

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