11/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Laff Riot

Sarah Palin's visit to Saturday Night Live two evenings ago in some ways echoed the reciprocal McCain-Obama ribbing at the Alfred E. Smith annual dinner in New York a few nights earlier. The Palin gig's comedy was pretty much restricted to her simply appearing on the show that has made the most effective fun of her. But it did re-raise the question of the place and meaning of campaign "meta" humor, in which candidates step outside the premises of their own campaigns for what is supposed to be comic respite.

At the Smith dinner, much more full-bodied than Palin appearance, the candidates' jokes were greeted by those in attendance with what sounded like exaggerated laughter. The jokes were in fact fairly good. The best? McCain saying that even in that den of Democrats, he felt sure he had some supporters, and then saying a special hello to Hillary Clinton--as if to say he knew she's hoping that Obama loses. In fact, and naturally enough, all the jokes played off overtly and covertly serious suspicions and charges--McCain's age, Obama's exotic provenance, McCain's multi-domicile lifestyle, Joe "the Six-Term Senator."

But they weren't *that* funny. Then why did the audience laugh its collective head off? Relief, I would say--relief maybe in part from the dream that we'll still be able to get along after this savage election. As the campaigns have grown more vicious, especially at the McCain and Palin rallies, many have become more anxious about the possibility of real violence or at least a complete breakdown in civility. On MSNBC on Friday, Congressbabe Michele Bachmann of Minnesota--and of the ice-blue eyes and the frozen smile--indicated that she thought members of Congress should be investigated for anti-Americanism. And Katrina Van Den Heuvel, Editor of The Nation, spoke of the potentially apocalyptic consequences of hate-tainted campaign tactics. So it's no surprise the Al Smith dinner's friendly-seeming jests were greeted with not only amusement but relief. See? It's just part of the game they're forced to play. Give them a few minutes with the gloves off and they'll turn into clever high-school buddies.

Well, fine, I guess. But which is it? If it's in an important way just a game, then, as ever, it's too bad that the candidates and the media and many of us play it as if it were entirely real, further inflaming those unable--because of ignorance or temperament--to see it as a game. On the other hand, if the political and personal hostility is as great as it seemed before and then breathtakingly soon after the Al Smith dinner--and as it resumed yesterday, after Palin's SNL cameo--then the joke relief is only temporary, like a painkiller that masks an infection.

Colin Powell's highly serious and considered endorsement of Obama yesterday was much closer to something like the cure--reality, not a game.