Obama On Leno — A Bad Joke

President Barrack Obama appeared on Jay Leno March 26, 2009.  He had several things working for him.  First was his relaxed, conversational style which conveys warmth and likability.  Second his ability to speak off the cuff, without being tied to a prepared script.  And third, his sense of humor which often relies on self-deprecation.  Poking fun at yourself is normally a good and safe strategy for getting laughs.

The interview led to the topic of Obama’s bowling skills.  During the campaign he had bowled a 37 in seven frames at a stop in Altoona, Pennsylvania (March 29, 2008).  If you’ve never bowled, if he had doubled his score it still would have been a very bad score.  He quipped that since taking office, he had bowled a 129 on the White House lanes (still not a score that most bowlers would brag about).  Leno quipped sarcastically, while applauding, “That’s very good Mr President,” and covered his mouth with his hand as if to hide a smirk.

Obama followed Leno’s remark with, “It was like Special Olympics or something.”  Oops.  That line would have never been used in prepared remarks.  Here are some of the danger zones that can lead to a mis-fired joke like this:

On A Roll.  When you’re in an interview or a routine that is going well–when the laughter is rolling–jokes that would obviously be off limits, or even borderline, suddenly seem safe.  The comfort zone of “everything is working” gives the illusion of safety and you go for the joke anyway, convinced that it will just blend into an already funny routine.  That is a formula for an unexpected pie in the face.

Mirror-What’s-Working.  Leno had gotten a laugh with a line in a style that could have been interpreted, indirectly, as a reference to Special Olympics.  The feeling can be that if someone got a laugh in a certain area, it must be safe territory.  The danger is that taking it a bit further can be the step that crosses the line of appropriate humor.  Leno’s line was safer because it implied something that was not stated directly.  That can also be a potentially dangerous humor strategy, but not as dangerous as being direct in your reference. 

Amateur Vs Professional.  Experience leads to professional status.  The judgment of a pro is usually better than that of an amateur.  Leno’s delivery style of “That’s very good Mr President” could have been taken as a subtle reference to Special Olympics.  Obama’s remark left nothing to the imagination.  One line was on the edge.  The other crossed the line. If you’re an amateur when it comes to humor, keep your antenna up and err on the side of caution.

Self-Deprecation That Isn’t.  Poking fun at yourself by comparing yourself to a stereotype of someone else, isn’t really self-deprecation.  At its foundation the joke is targeted at someone else’s expense.  It’s a danger zone, because the illusion is that the joke is about you.  And it’s not.

What do you do when you realize you crossed the line?  As quickly as you can, you apologize.  And then you take steps to show where you’re really coming from.  Most people will be willing to accept that you’re human and can put your foot in your mouth, even if you’re the President.  And don’t lose sleep over the fact that nothing will satisfy those who want your job.