Politicians and humor: It’s really easy to stumble on the way to a punchline and look dumb

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

Do you ever wonder why politicians do not pull April Fools’ pranks? Probably not. But we’ll examine it anyway.

One could argue that each time they do something, it’s an April Fools’ joke. I’m not going to argue that, but some people may, perhaps a lot of “some people.”

South African President Jacon Zuma, according to Reuters, decided to test the April Fools’ waters and sent out a fake press release.

He announced some new cabinet appointments, including ministers for Public Participation and Roads and Traffic Affairs.

At least one media outlet ran the story, and then they retracted it.

The problem with political humor is that a lot of times it does not work. For example, if you make a joke about one side, the other side is not going to laugh.

Politicians by nature are not all that funny. There are exceptions, and in the U.S., we have learned to combine at times politics and humor. But it has to be in the right context.

For example, at the Washington Correspondents’ Dinner, everybody knows that the insults will be flying. After they knock back a few, those writers and politicians are ready to spit out their one-liners, and each side laughs, knowing that their turn is coming.

But if the White House sent out a fairly believable press release stating that they have made some appointments to some made-up departments, that would not be in context. Some news outlets here would also run with it.

Then the opposition would lambaste the whole thing as a cruel joke on the hard-working people in this country ... and the children. I had to throw in “the children,” like a lot of politicians do.

Political humor has lots of minefields. Bob Hope was an expert at maneuvering around them. He got both sides, and the jokes were never cruel.

Johnny Carson tried it also, but never could achieve that Hope balance. Dean Martin, from what I saw of him, stayed away from politics and focused on women -- not as joke fodder, but in general. He was apparently very good at it.

Carson at times came off as a liberal, which he probably was, because he never really hit the left as often and hard as the right. That balancing act can be pretty tricky. And, if you fall, there is nothing good down there like a safety net. It’s a hard landing.

Because it is not in context. Hope was able to shape the context over the decades, and the Correspondents’ Dinner can set the scene.

Politicians, unless they read the lines from a Teleprompter, do not make good comedians, in general. So when President Zuma announced that he would make these fake appointments, a lot of recipients did not connect the dots.

And, what is so funny about appointing someone to Public Participation and Interface, or Roads and Traffic Affairs? In this world of cliche department names, that doesn’t really stand out as a joke.

So what? Appoint them. Who cares? While Zuma’s people may have had tears rolling down their face from laughing so hard, the joke flew right over most people’s heads, including those who handle these boring press releases all day long.

For example, if President Obama would send out something along the lines that he appointed Speaker Boehner to head up a committee to investigate cheating in golf scores, that would click right away with people. Nobody would report that as real news because it is in context. The background of the joke is recognizable.

That would only be funny to half the people in the U.S., though. The other half would accuse Obama of thinking about nothing but golfing, and how to make Boehner look bad.

Bob Hope would make two quick hits and get out of the minefield.

BTW, why would South Africa’s President Zuma play a practical joke like that, even though it’s not all that funny? Doesn’t he have other things to do, like run the country?

“I did think it was funny,” opposition Parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane told the local channel News24, which was then picked up by Reuters. “I wish they could be very serious every other day of the year.”

There we go again. Another politician trying to be funny. Why not be very serious every day and earn your pay?

Throw the bums out.