President Barack Obama, once a year dubbed the Comedian-in-Chief, knows how to use humor to uplift rather than to tear down. Oh, he's funny enough. That's not my point. What impressed me Saturday night at the White House Correspondents Dinner was not just that he was again very cool, but that he really is comfortable with himself. He doesn't need to tear others down to make himself look good.
Humor can be painful. President Obama has been the brunt of more than his share of jokes, taken more than his share of ridicule, and been the target of out-right hate. Saturday night, beginning with the traditional self-deprecating jokes, Obama acknowledged that he was expected to make fun of himself and to take himself down a few pegs, but added, "After four and a half years, how many pegs are left?"
Humor is a funny thing. Or not. We live in a world so starved for genuine joy that our sit-coms have become nothing more than a series of put-down jokes. No wonder our conversation mimics the comics, filled with bullying snide-remarks rather than the wit of wisdom. That is, if we have face-to-face conversation at all. It's so much more convenient to make fun of people who "Friend" us electronically or to titter at our Twitter. We are sick from our own cynicism.
"Can't you take a joke?" I can, and I can tell a pretty good joke about you, too. But maybe I choose not to. Not when it's all about power, either my having enough to humiliate you, or your having enough to take me down. So often we use humor as bullets. We shoot them randomly. And there is collateral damage. A roast is unsuccessful if it does not demolish the enemy. Oh, did I say, "Enemy?" I was only joking.
I find humor best when it arises from community. A group working together, enjoying each other, trusting each other. We do or say something in context that's just plain funny, a you-have-to-have-been-there funny. And we laugh, not at each other, but with each other.
Actually, the White House Correspondents Dinner came close to that Saturday night. Oh, there were some stingers, but not so many out-of-bounds remarks that we were all talking about them Sunday morning. The hit was Barack trying to copy Michelle by adding bangs to his image. Fun! And the president issued some humorous remarks about the full range of news sources. Well taken! He added, "My job is to be president. Their job is to keep me humble. Frankly I think I'm doing my job better." Applause.
The president reserved some humor for the Republicans. (Conan O'Brien had more.) Obama said that after the election all of the Republicans agreed they could do a better job of reaching out to minorities. He went on, "I can think of one minority they could start with. 'Hello!'" suggesting they start with him and see how it goes.
Was Obama's humor tough enough? He may have come closest when referring to people asking, "Why don't you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?" "Really?" Obama said, "Why don't you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?" Big laugh. After which the president uttered, " Sometimes I get frustrated." But he returned to his inclusive humor when kidding about Marco Rubio considering running for president. "He hasn't finished a single term in the Senate and he thinks he's ready to be president? Kids, these days."
The president ended on a more serious note. "These have been some very hard days for too many of our citizens: Boston, West, Texas, families in the Midwest coping with terrible floods." He went on to raise up rather than tear down, saying that even in these days we have seen humanity at its best. Everyday Americans have been opening their homes and their hearts to perfect strangers. He said he had seen journalists at their best, chasing down leads to verify facts to inform and educate. He commended first responders, law enforcement officers, volunteers and citizens who served not to be honored or celebrated but because of love of families, neighborhoods and country. He added that they should inspire all of us to do our jobs with the same fidelity and integrity rather than focusing on profits or ratings or polls that contribute to the cynicism so many people feel right now. "We can do better, all of us," he said. Those of us with power, influence, all of us can strive to value those things that led us to do what we do in the first place. We believe in service, and that we can have a lasting positive influence on those around us.
Now that's a reason to enjoy one another.