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Alan Schroeder

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Comedy and Politics: A Combustible Mix

Posted: 06/20/11 07:21 PM ET

Politics and comedy are a combustible mix, as a minor dust-up in New Orleans this past weekend reminds us. On Saturday a Barack Obama impersonator named Reggie Brown got yanked offstage at the Republican Leadership Conference after the hosts who invited him decided they had had enough. The controversy shows what can happen when a pan-political jokester plies his trade in front of a hyper-partisan crowd.

We can reasonably assume that event organizers believed that putting an Obama impersonator before an audience of die-hard Obama-haters would be a stroke of entertainment genius. The wisdom of this is dubious on several levels. Beyond racial insensitivity, the decision betrays a fundamental naivete about the priorities of show business. Republicans may have thought they were paying for a modern-day minstrel act, but Reggie Brown arrived with his own agenda -- and like any comedian worth his salt, he followed his comedic instincts, wherever they might lead him.

Some critics saw racism in Brown's jokes about the president, like the line about Michelle celebrating Black History Month all February long while Barack celebrates only half. This charge ignores the reality that Brown aimed his fire at Republicans and Democrats alike (even though the crowd clearly preferred the Obama stuff). The comedian made a polygamy joke about Mitt Romney, stoked the flames of the Anthony Weiner scandal, cracked wise about Tim Pawlenty's spinelessness, and even worked in an unfortunate reference to Barney Frank's derriere. The funniest joke of Brown's entire routine was one that targeted Barbara Bush -- proof positive that when it comes to political humor, nothing is sacred.

In a written apology event organizers today said they had "no tolerance for racially insensitive jokes," but this expression of remorse is disingenuous, to put it mildly. Not until Brown started in on the Michele Bachmann gags did his Republican hosts see fit to give him the hook. In silencing the comedian they may have hoped to minimize the fall-out, but instead they damaged themselves by looking like they can't take a joke.

This episode demonstrates anew that political operatives don't understand the realities of professional humor. Comedians are not court jesters afraid of offending the king. Their stock in trade is to skewer any and all elected officials, which is precisely what Brown did. If the folks at the Republican Leadership Conference weren't savvy enough to grasp this basic principle, then they deserve what they got.

In the final analysis the big beneficiary in all this -- and rightly so -- is the heretofore obscure Reggie Brown. The man does a first-rate Barack Obama. Here's hoping we'll see more of him.