Dissecting Political Laughter

Posted March 28, 2012 at 11:57pm

As a politician, it’s a slippery slope to balance whether the voters are voting with you or at you.

So finds Bill Horner, a University of Missouri political science professor who sees little evidence that modern politicians can handle becoming a national punch line. 

Horner puts a range of public figures under the microscope for his latest book, “The First Saturday Night: ‘Saturday Night Live’ and the Presidential Election of 1976,” a project focusing on the hard lessons all parties involved learned during the 1976 and 2008 presidential contests. Because the book is still being vetted by Syracuse University Press (publication date: TBD), we took the opportunity to pick the professor’s brain about the current crop of would-be leaders.

“I don’t think any of them have done a particularly good job,” he said, adding that most of the folks still vying for the Oval Office come off as humorless — with good reason.

“It oftentimes doesn’t work out for the candidates,” Horner said. He pointed to President Gerald Ford, who was lampooned mercilessly by SNL’s Chevy Chase in 1976 and tried to play along, as well as former GOP vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin, who also had a tortured turn on SNL.

“It only compounded the problem because it made those who already had doubts about her wonder, ‘How can anyone who takes themselves seriously as a politician subject themselves to this?’” he said of the episode in which the Republican firebrand attempted to match wits with Tina Fey’s interpretation of her.

Horner sees their two examples as cautionary tales to those who foolishly believe comedic jabs don’t sway public opinion.

Horner gave President Barack Obama a few style points for jokingly covering the mic the day after he inadvertently got caught pleading for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to cut him some slack until after the elections.

“He’s reasonably good at going with the joke … given enough time to prepare,” Horner said.

Horner also gave tongue-tied Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) some props for his self-effacing reaction to his debate missteps.

“He tried really quickly to do damage control with the problems he had in the debates. [But] he just continued to make one gaffe after another,” Horner said.

Neither former Speaker Newt Gingrich (“He’s always so serious about himself”) nor former Sen. Rick Santorum (“I have not seen any real indication that he has any sense of humor”) have tickled Horner’s funny bone.

And even if former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were to suddenly start “acting funny,” Horner is fairly certain the Republican frontrunner would simply be accused of more “image manipulation.”

And they should all get ready for more. After all, the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner is just around the corner.