On his HBO show, "Real Time With Bill Maher," the comedian routinely makes vicious fun of celebrities, politicians, presidents and even God. But he's learned that, for much of his audience, Barack Obama is off limits.
Not long after the historic presidential election, Maher joked that Republicans were feeling particularly superstitious: "They say the country is having bad luck because there's a black cat in the White House." The studio audience erupted in loud groans and boos -- a reaction, Maher observed in a recent interview, that exceeded his often scathing attacks on organized religion.
"Obama is the new God," quipped Maher of the poorly received dig, which he pointed out pokes at conservatives more than the commander in chief.
The heckling response to Maher's gibe is hardly an anomaly. As late-night talk show hosts and other television comics who trade in political humor know, cracking wise about the new president, who marked his 100th day in office last week, is apparently not very funny for most of the people, most of the time. Not surprisingly, to guard against a frosty or uncertain reception, TV's leading political humorists have largely backed away from their ritual comic hazing of the president, a colorful tradition in the medium, especially in its late-night time slots, since at least the Nixon administration.
"If you're a comedian and you die and go to heaven, Bill Clinton is your president," said Robert J. Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "If you're a comedian and you die and go to hell, Barack Obama is your president."
Obama has cast so many political humorists into a bad spot because he lacks the obvious defining qualities -- both mentally and physically -- that transformed previous Oval Office occupants into comedic catnip. He doesn't have a strong regional accent and didn't have a strange job before his political rise (former peanut farmer Jimmy Carter). He doesn't fall down (Gerald Ford). He is not regarded as aging or forgetful (Ronald Reagan). He hasn't been dubbed a "wimp" (George H.W. Bush). He is not tainted by scandal (Clinton). He doesn't stumble over the English language (George W. Bush).
The 44th president's elusiveness as a comic target is more than just superficial, however, and reveals deep national reluctance toward mocking a leader in crisis and toward discussing race. Much of humor's punch derives from the humbling of the mighty, but that card has, for now, been greatly diminished in the wake of the financial meltdown.
Obama didn't create the economic mess, and Americans see him earnestly struggling to clean it up. Just as they virtually went silent in taking potshots at George W. Bush in the months following the attacks of 9/11, so, too, television comedians have been hesitant to go after Obama as he copes with a genuine disaster.
But it's Obama's African American heritage more than any other single factor that has perhaps frozen comics' pens and keyboards. Political humorists, most of whom are white, have never dealt with a black president and aren't sure how their material will be received. Is an Obama joke truly aimed at the office and its policies, or is it merely a smokescreen for racial prejudice?
"You don't want to appear racist," said Buddy Winston, a former writer for the "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." "You can't do the stereotypical thing. Someone who's a Texan or an elite is much easier to attack."
Black comedians encounter similar difficulties in crafting humor at the new president's expense, said David Alan Grier, star of Comedy Central's short-lived "Chocolate News." "Some people in the black community see any sort of criticism of Obama as a betrayal," said Grier. "But my thing is, it's not a betrayal. It's just jokes. That's what comedy is."
Much of the humor in the last few weeks on "The Tonight Show" has taken a safe comic route by centering on the first family's new dog and Obama's mother-in-law, who lives in the White House.
Meanwhile David Letterman, who regularly bashed Bush, has repeatedly praised the new president ("You gotta like this guy . . . by God, this guy is out there, doing stuff. He's always got stuff going on").
In fact, the CBS late-night host has used Obama to set up jabs at Bush. In one monologue, he noted Obama's recent trip to South America, where his lack of knowledge of Spanish prevented him from reading a book presented to him by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: "It would be like handing George Bush any book."
Writers and producers for "Late Show With David Letterman," "The Tonight Show," "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report" declined comment for this story.
Even "Saturday Night Live," which is renowned for its politically biting humor, has been mostly soft on Obama. A few weeks ago, the series ran a sketch with former pro wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. In it, the normally cool-under-fire Obama, played by Fred Armisen, would transform into the hulkish wrestler "The Rock Obama," who would throw dissenters out the window.
Contributing to Obama's kid-glove treatment, too, are the political leanings of many comedy writers. Although it didn't ultimately help Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter, Winston, who wrote for Leno for six years, argues there's little doubt many joke writers are Democrats.
"You have to remember that most comedy writers on these shows are more liberal than conservative," Winston said. "It was much easier to write comedy when the enemy was the target."
To be sure, Obama is not getting away scot-free. In recent weeks, "The Daily Show" has jabbed the president for the tax problems of his Cabinet nominees and his indulgent fondness for private White House performances from such artists as Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire.
It's also important to remember that television audiences aren't a scientific sample of the nation and might be distorting the true appetite for Obama humor, said Maher. He contends most of his TV audiences are "limousine liberals" who are overly sensitive, particularly about race. But he says when he's on the road performing in arenas, jokes about Obama having a shark tank in the White House earn big laughs.
"There's a huge difference with the stand-up audiences across the country in cities such as Tulsa and Kansas City," said Maher. "Those people never boo. They're the real deal, true freethinkers. They want to laugh."
But in comedy, it's all about timing. More than 100 days into the new administration, Ian Cameron, executive producer of ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," said that it may still be too early for Obama-based material to emerge. The show's regular segment "The Sunday Funnies," which offers a roundup of national political humor, has been light on Obama jokes.
"There also has been more of a track record with Bush, when there were eight years," said Cameron. "A lot of comedians are still feeling their way. There's still the 'Obama walking on water' jokes."
Obama will fall into the water somehow, and when he does the comedians will be there, said Malcolm Kushner, a scholar of presidential humor who co-created the humor exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
"Everybody thought 9/11 would be the death of comedy, and it wasn't," he said. "It will happen."
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