I have been speaking on the topic of humor in politics for about fifteen years to the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. And I have been the keynote speaker at about 20 other state leagues and national conferences of elected officials. When humor is used appropriately, it can make important points, diffuse tension, bring new people to see your point of view ---and most importantly ----show your human side.
Sometimes politicos do very well on TV when trying to be funny. Some do not.
The 2008 candidates for president have been sort of funny in the debates. Sometimes there are planned ‘quips’. Sometimes spontaneous. But I am sure that with most of the candidates hitting The Daily Show, The Tonight Show, Letterman, Leno, Conan O’Brien ----they each have someone on their staff to write good one-liners or to consult with them on how to deliver a punch line. I was once even called on to help Jim Florio be funny at the New Jersey Legislative Correspondents Dinner.
Here are some of the better one-liners from recent appearances by the 2008 candidates from USA Today, that voters may use to decide who they support:
Sen. Joseph Biden, made short, funny work of a question about his propensity for verbal gaffes and verbosity in general.
"Can you reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage?" moderator Brian Williams asked him at an MSNBC debate in April.
"Yes," Biden said. As it became clear that was his entire answer, the audience roared.
What do you pray for? Was asked of Senator Hillary Clinton, at a forum on faith: "Oh Lord, why can't you help me lose weight?"
John Edwards and the $400 haircut: The haircut was a private expense that was listed on a publicly disclosed campaign-spending report. The former North Carolina senator did damage control last month on NBC's The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Asked why he and his wife, Elizabeth, eat at Wendy's on their wedding anniversary, Edwards said: "You can't spend money on food when you're spending money on haircuts"
Sen. Chris Dodd, is making pre-emptive cracks about his age (63) and late-in-life fatherhood (his daughters are 5 and 2). "I'm probably the only one who gets mailings from AARP and diaper services," he often says.
Barack Obama faces potential wariness about his name. He introduces the topic by describing his first run for office: People everywhere asked, "Where did you get this name, Barack Obama? They'd mispronounce it to me. They would call me Alabama or Yo-Mama, and I'd have to explain it was Obama; my father was from Kenya, from Africa; my mother was from Kansas."
Sometimes funny ads can help:
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has moved up to double-digits in Iowa polls since starting a series of ads called "Job Interview." Each is a skit with a crass interviewer and the bemused governor.
In one, the interviewer reviews the Democrat's résumé — congressman, U.S. energy secretary, United Nations ambassador, Nobel Peace Prize nominee — and chews food as he asks, "So, what makes you think you can be president?"
Even the Republicans try their hand at humor:
Mitt Romney: The Mormon faith, with its polygamous past, poses a similar challenge for Romney. He handled it this way at a St. Patrick's Day breakfast in 2005, when he was governor: "I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman … and a woman …and a woman."
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani pulled that off at a CNN debate last month when microphone problems interrupted his answer to a question about his differences with Catholic bishops. Told lightning was the culprit, he laughed and said: "For someone who went to parochial schools his whole life, this is a very frightening thing."
How long did God take to create the world? Was asked of Mike Huckabee, at a debate: "I don't know. I wasn't there."
And two old standards from both sides of the political aisle:
One classic was the fake telegram then-senator John F. Kennedy read from his father at the 1958 Gridiron Dinner in Washington: "Don't buy a single vote more than is necessary — I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide." With that, Kennedy defused allegations that his rich father was trying to buy him the 1960 election.
Reagan scored a similar coup regarding his age, 73, when he ran for re-election in 1984 against Walter Mondale, then 56. "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience," Reagan said during a debate. Mondale laughed and the issue became moot.
Humor: A tool in the rights hands. A horrible mistake in others'.