But politicians, many of whom are former lawyers, aren't generally funny, and are never at their best when attempting to tell a joke. They usually end up missing the mark, offending people, or both. Most of us would get sued by angry mobs if we told the kind of offensive or lame jokes politicians tell routinely, but that's where being former lawyers comes in really handy. Still, it would be better for them, and for us, not to mention the angry mobs, if they'd quit trying to do it.
Take the latest in the Obama vs. Palin contest. Obama seems, among other things, to have forgotten that he's not actually running against Palin, but aside from that the problem with his "lipstick on a pig" joke is that it's not funny. Now, I don't think the McCain campaign needed to draw attention to it, but maybe they're doing so out of misplaced mercy; it's their way of letting Obama know that the 80s called and wants its joke back. The 1880s, that is, which is the last time the "lipstick on a pig" phrase was actually funny; the word "lipstick" was new enough then that it probably conveyed a pretty hilarious mental image, and provoked the appropriate giggling reaction.
Today, when America's second female vice-presidential candidate is clearly the only one in the race who wears lipstick (anymore, anyway; remember those awful early years of C-Span, when senators showed up in makeup for the cameras? I bet Joe Biden does. McCain not so much, as I'm sure his advisers would have told him to stay away from anything more than a light gloss. But I digress), it's pretty foolish to use a joking phrase, however antiquated, that specifically references a female cosmetic product. The only way this could have been worse would be if Obama had suddenly channeled Prince Charles and referenced a female hygiene product, but if that had happened the Secret Service would have needed to whisk him away from the women in the crowd before some sort of riot broke out. Come to think of it, it's pretty safe to joke about lipstick in front of a crowd of feminists; most of them don't wear it, and haven't since their commune days in the heady late '60s.
The point I'm completely failing to make here (though by example, not so much!) is that there's a right way and a wrong way to do political humor. Obama's sudden lapse into "Lipstickgate" is one example of the wrong way, and my preceding paragraphs provide another example of political humor done badly.
Fortunately, I have an example of political humor done well, from the incomparable Dave Berry of the Miami Herald:
ST. PAUL --The Republican convention reached a dramatic conclusion Thursday night when, moments after John McCain finished his triumphant acceptance speech, nets high above the convention floor opened up and released thousands upon thousands of red, white and blue golf balls.
''We thought we'd try something a little different,'' one convention planner said later, as wounded delegates were carried out on stretchers, some of them still clutching PROSPERITY signs. ``Next time we are definitely going back to the balloons.''
But other than that, the convention went pretty well. The Republicans came to Minnesota worried about whether they could match the megawatt buzz generated in Denver by the Democrats' ticket of Barack Obama and Joe Biden and Ben Affleck. But the Republicans are leaving here with energy of their own, thanks to the McCain-Palin ticket, which combines the experience of a longtime maverick war-hero senator with the fresh-faced 'n' feisty toughness of a small-town Alaska hockey-mom snowmobiling mayor governor who can kill and field-butcher a mature grizzly bear using only a nail file and her teeth.
The Republicans are also feeling good about their message, which is that Washington is bad and whoever is in charge there needs to be run out of town on a rail. Interestingly, this is also the Democrats' message. We are now in our fourth consecutive decade in which both of our major political parties are just totally FED UP with Washington. I frankly don't see how Washington can survive this onslaught much longer.
See, now that's the way to do it. Lipstick on a pig, referencing the "pit bull" joke Sarah Palin told at her own expense? Not funny. "...a small-town Alaska hockey-mom snowmobiling mayor governor who can kill and field-butcher a mature grizzly bear using only a nail file and her teeth..."? Funny.
I hope Obama will leave the jokes to the professionals from now on. I'm probably not sage enough to take my own advice, but at least I've got the principle of the thing.