President Obama spoke at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner last week for the second time. As always, the centerpiece of this high profile event is the comedy routine delivered by the sitting president. Judging from the audience reaction to Mr. Obama's jokes, he didn't do as well as he did in his first outing. You can see--and hear--the difference for yourself by viewing the two YouTube videos embedded below:
All of which goes to prove the danger of trying to be funny. The task is difficult enough for professional comedians; the subject of a prior blog called "Beware of Jokes" that discussed how late night television stars Johnny Carson and Jon Stewart, whose gags, written by armies of comedy writers, often fail. In fact, Jay Leno, the professional comedian who followed Mr. Obama at this year's Correspondents' event, bombed.
- Patrick Gavin of Politico wrote, "Obama tops Leno at WHCD"
- Frank Rich of the New York Times called the comedian's performance "mirthless"
- Daniel Kurtzman, in his Political Humor Blog, called Mr. Leno's performance "a train wreck"
Comedy is even more difficult territory for the non-professional performers such as presidents--and business people, including you. Mr. Obama actually had the advantage of professional help. As reported by Amie Parnes on Politico, the president's speechwriting team brought in professional help in the person of Kevin Bleyer, who works on with Jon Stewart on Comedy Channel's "The Daily Show."
That kind of support is simply out of the question for anyone in business. Nonetheless, the pervasive belief persists that a presentation or speech should begin with joke. As the author of three books about presentation skills, I have often been interviewed on the subject. Almost invariably, the interviewers, professional journalists all, raise the question of starting with a gag.
My response to all of them has been the same as it is for all of you: Beware of jokes.
Coda: Jay Leno's presence seems to have a dampening effect on Mr. Obama's humor. You can read about a presidential joke that backfired in a blog about the president's appearance on Mr. Leno's show.
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