01/03/2009 04:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House-- Not

Comedy's Obama Problem

It's been more than a week now since our historic presidential election, and comedians are suffering a serious case of Republican withdrawal. No wonder, given the feeding frenzy in the run-up to the election, when the Republicans served up Sarah Palin to previously flagging lampooners at Saturday Night Live and beyond. Not to mention Dick Cheney's coughing fit endorsement of McCain, Palin's wardrobe issues, McCain's facial expressions, and Palin being punked by a fake French president. The GOP list goes on and on.

The Democrats, not so much. Early attempts at humor bombed (the Obama New Yorker cover) or simply fell flat (Joel Stein in the LA Times). Chris Rock's Kill the Messenger routine featured a brief poke at Obama, but it was soft and the least funny part of the show (and Rock endorsed Obama). Jon Stewart tried to make hay out of Obama's regal bearing, accusing him of posing for coin-dom. Joe Biden offered a richer vein (the bloviations, the hair plugs), but no one really cared.

So comedians shifted to a two-fold strategy: first, imaginary scenarios; second, deflection.

Imaginary scenario
In late October Bill Maher made a direct appeal to Obama to "be more black." He pleaded with him to turn the White House into a Wilt Chamberlain-style love nest, and begged him to gain weight like Rerun Stubbs (the fat and happy sitcom character). Maher lamented the loss of funny-ness, said it is essential for people to be able to laugh at their leaders and explained our inability to laugh at Barack by saying that white liberals are scared to laugh at black people (the camera then pointedly cut away to Tim Robbins guffawing at Maher's jokes). The following day, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman opined that "Americans have rediscovered the virtue of seriousness," an observation that must have turned the stomachs of political comedians everywhere. After the election, Maher told Larry King he was still looking for the funny in Obama: "He's not stupid. He's not angry. He's not a phony. He's not fat. He's not cheating on his wife. Who needs a jerk like that around for the next four years? Come on."

A few days later, Stephen Colbert referred to McCain as possessing the "temperament of a rabid badger in first class," which is just the sort of barb we wanted about all the presidential candidates. But the night Obama appeared on the Daily Show (a ratings high), there was Jon Stewart with a cartoon cornucopia of psychedelic flowers spewing from his mouth. In that moment the focus shifted from Obama, the candidate to be scrutinized and skewered, to Stewart, the acolyte poking fun at his own fawning enthusiasm for the candidate. The lead-up to the interview was more of the same, poking fun at Stewart (not Obama) for his desperate need for an exclusive, only to be thwarted by another interviewer at another show. The interview itself was genial and inconsequential, an opportunity for Obama to dismiss charges of socialism by saying "in kindergarten I shared my toys," which got the biggest laugh of the night.

The deflection strategy is also being employed to make Obama jokes at the expense of other pols. Here's a post-election sampling. Conan O'Brien: "Thousands of pregnant mothers in this country are planning to name their baby Barack. That's true. Yeah, after hearing this, Sarah Palin told Bristol, 'Don't even think about it." Jay Leno: "As you know, President-elect Obama promised his daughters a puppy if they move to the White House. And he's already getting advice on what the best breed of dog to get. For example, today, President Clinton told him the Oval Office is a great place for a husky female." David Letterman: "Today, the big transition process begins, because earlier today, Barack Obama met with President Bush at the White House. So you had the president-elect and the president-inept, so they were there together."

After the election, The Daily Show featured a cute and cuddly (but not particularly funny) segment on the future White House dog. Jon Stewart announced that he was going to try out his Obama impersonation, and then went and impersonated George Bush. A few lame Obama jokes later he said, by way of explanation, "Boom shaka-laka -- How are we gonna make this shit funny?" Nearly a week later, on Tuesday, November 11, he was still looking for an answer, poking gentle fun at Obama's transition posse but only hitting his stride by suggesting that our lame-duck President Bush would be more than happy to have his successor take over now.

During the primaries, comedians expressed their worries over an Obama comedy famine in the International Herald Tribune, with Jimmy Kimmel suggesting that jokes could focus on Obama's ears. New York magazine is now wondering whether the Daily Show can survive the coming administration. And the Associated Press mourns that "soon there'll be no President Bush to kick around." Until comedians find their Obama funny bone, we're all losers. As Maher says "People need to laugh at their president. It's right in the constitution."