Super Tuesday — Political Humor — Candidates Going For The Laughs

Politicians either have the humor touch or they don’t.  But if they don’t have it…they CAN get it.  It’s not that someone has to be born with humor talent.  It’s often a learned skill.  But it can’t be learned overnight.  And a coach or a writer will not make you the star jester of the political circuit with some tips and some lines.

Those of us who are not on the campaign trail can learn a lot from those who are.  As business leaders, sales people, supervisors and just ordinary people dealing with a variety of personal relationships…humor is a key success tool.  The basic principles that will work for a politician will quite likely work for us too.

Start Early.  The earlier you start working on your humor skills, the better you’ll be.  Hopefully a politician started to seriously work on his or her humor skills when they ran for city council 25 years ago.  As a speaker, I’m better at humor than most.  And that’s because, compared to some of them, I have a 30-year head start.  I began a committed study of humor in 1977.  If you haven’t made that commitment, there’s no better time to make it than NOW.  And just about anyone can learn to be funnier.

Humor To Relieve Stress.  Stressful situations are often ripe for humor.  Wit came naturally to Ronald Reagan. After he was shot on March 30, 1981, he said, “Honey, I forgot to duck,” when he saw his wife Nancy in the hospital.  That hit me as a flashback to one of his roles in a cowboy movie where the gun slingers duck to avoid the bullets.  And to the surgeon, Reagan quipped, ” I hope you’re a Republican.”  He didn’t have a speech writer handing him a fresh joke.  It was his nature. 

Little Laughs Are Good.  You can’t always hit a home run with your humor.  A little humor is better than none.  Rudy Giuliani, at a speech in Tampa, Florida, on December 15, talked about simplifying the tax code.  “We’re going to develop a single page, one-page optional tax form. How about being able to do it all on one page? Wouldn’t that be great?  Ok. The print may be a little small.”  Not a belly laugh…but funny.  Hillary Clinton at a stop on her 99-county tour of Iowa, remarked that her staff was referring to her helicopter as a “Hill-A-Copter.”  Not knee-slapping funny.  But cute. On NBC’s Today Show, December 19, After discussing religion and politics, Meridith Vieire said to Mike Huckabee, “I know you are a very, very busy man. I thank you for your time. And you know what? Merry Christmas, sir.”  Huckabee replied, “And Merry Christmas. I hope it doesn’t get me in trouble.”  Little laughs add up.

Humor Show That You Are a Real Person.  Someone who can laugh at himself or herself comes across as genuine.  Hillary Clinton ran a Sopranos spoof campaign ad that was a change of pace.

Diffuse Attacks and Negative Issues.  Ronald Reagan is famous for his classic one liner to set aside the age issue during a debate with Walter Mondale.  “I will not make age an issue in this campaign.  I will not exploit, for political purposes, my opponents youth and inexperience.”  Gerald Ford is a great example of someone who was the target of a lot of humor but who was not, himself, a funny person.  He used humor very strategically to diffuse the humor about his apparent clumsiness.  Another good example of a not-so-funny president is George Bush doing a great job as a stand-up comic at the national press dinner in Washington.  The lesson learned, if someone is going to make fun of you, beat them to the punch and poke fun at yourself first.

Be Willing to Laugh.  It’s not always easy to find and deliver great punchlines while maintaining a presidential-like dignity.  An alternative is to keep your sense of humor and be willing to laugh out loud at funny things other people say.  Hillary Clinton reacted to Harry Smith on CBS The Early Show, December 17, when he mentioned that she had turned 60 and added “sorry.”  Clinton laughed and said “Stop the cameras!”  Most candidates are pretty good at laughing out loud.  The question is, how do you look and sound when you laugh?  Be open to feedback from your coaches and advisors.  If you laugh like a chipmunk or snort like a pig, wouldn’t it be nice to know?

Less Is More.  Don’t be too eager to be funny or you’re likely to shoot your self in the foot.  And be aware that you may often be within range of a microphone when you least expect it.  Ronald Reagan, one of our most humor-skilled presidents, got caught not realizing he was actually speaking into a hot mike when he said:  “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”  Select the right moment.  And know that you’re never off camera or off the record.