Comedy can be a politician's best friend. And not just at events like Saturday's White House Correspondents' Dinner.
As he has every year, President Obama outperformed the very funny comedian that had the unenviable task of following the leader of the free world. If Obama wins a second term, the organization might consider dropping the comedian slot altogether, and instead have President Obama do twice as long a set. Pragmatic and moderate as president, he is edgy and fearless as a comedian. In an election year when conventional wisdom would have him playing it safe, the president gleefully, skillfully and hilariously went after Gingrich and Santorum, who were in the audience, and even his opponent Mitt Romney.
Obama is a master at defusing negative Republican talking points about his administration with cuttingly funny responses, that are more effective than a more lengthy, serious response would be. Last year, with Donald Trump dominating the media with his inane birther rants, the president methodically and uproariously took him down with his witheringly funny put downs of the unamused Trump. And it's not simply the case that Obama scores comedically just because he has great writers. The funniest lines in the world can be rendered humorless in the wrong hands. Obama has the timing not of a pretty funny President, but of a professional comedian at the top of his game.
This is not to say that a person must be funny to be a good president. Which explains my past support for John Kerry and Michael Dukakis. But a president must at least have a self-deprecating sense of humor, that allows him to be a serious person without always taking himself too seriously. Without that, you have a president who is not humble enough to recognize his flaws and try to do better.
One could picture Newt Gingrich doing comedy with such an inflated sense of himself, that his act would go over almost as well as his failed candidacy. If a joke bombed, Gingrich would continue to insist to the audience, with a straight face, that the joke was indeed funny, that he knew better than them, and that Callista thought it was sidesplittingly funny.
There is hope for Rick Santorum as a comedian. First, there was his self deprecating response when a shirtless picture of him was posted online, Santorum quipped, "I know, I probably should lose about 15, 20 pounds, but I'm working on it. I apologize to all of us, because I'm sure it's not a pretty sight."
And on Saturday at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, Santorum flashed a thumbs up, after the president joked about Mitt Romney's two degrees from Harvard, and said "What a snob." The very word Santorum had called Obama for saying he wanted kids to go to college. Maybe the thumbs up was a way of Santorum acknowledging that his own comment had been ridiculous. Either that or he just wanted people to know he was there.
But the person who really needs comedy the most is Mitt Romney. I can picture him opening his WHCD routine, with "Here's an amusing story about several people who were laid off in the newspaper business."
I don't hold it against Romney that he is awkward and shy with strangers in intimate settings. That may be bad for a politician but it's par for the course for comedians like myself. But the greatest attribute a good comedian has is the one Romney is glaringly missing. The ability to be comfortable in your own skin and to be true to yourself on stage. When you're not, the audience can smell the fear and deception a mile away.
Again, to be an effective candidate Romney need not match Obama's extraordinary comedic skills. Nor does he have to hire the best comedy writers. What Romney needs to do, is to figure out once and for all, who he really is up there on the stage. What he really stands for and what his core convictions are. And most importantly, to be able to poke fun at his mistakes and the negative things critics say about him.
Because the same traits that help make you a good comedian can also make you a more appealing candidate and President.
And to let voters get a better sense of who the candidates are as people, I propose, in addition to the three debates, an evening of standup comedy with President Obama and Mitt Romney. Each candidate will do a 20 minute routine in a similar setting as the White House Correspondents Dinner, to an audience evenly divided between supporters of each candidate.
Unlike Last Comic Standing, the winner won't be announced that night. But what voters learn about the candidates through their material, and how easily they can laugh at themselves, could help them make a more informed decision on Election Day.
At the very least, you'll have Republicans and Democrats sitting in a room laughing together.
Which is a good start.