Funny or Foul? The Fine Line Between Humor and Offense

When you're running for president, exchanging witty barbs on America's late-night comedic circuit has become an essential component of the dog-and-pony show.

But in Sen. John McCain's case this week, the barb was actually barbed wire. And getting tangled up in his own rhetoric was no laughing matter.

On the eve of officially announcing his presidential candidacy, McCain jokingly told Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" that he had a gift for him: an IED Stewart could place under his desk.

Furious, Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn., lambasted the Arizona Republican Wednesday on the House floor for the joke.

"Imagine a presidential candidate making a joke about IEDs when our kids are getting blown up," he said.

McCain defended his comedy to "Good Morning America's" Diane Sawyer, saying his detractors should "lighten up" and "get a life."

"I don't know how to react to that kind of hysteria to a comedy show," he told Diane Sawyer on "GMA."

"All I'm going to say to Murtha and others," McCain continued, "[is] lighten up and get a life."

Good Sense vs. a Sense of Humor

Josh Gottheimer, a former speechwriter for both President Bill Clinton and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said that for political figureheads "the upside is so small" for jokes that poke fun at others or mock serious issues of national interest that they should be avoided at all costs.

"Poking fun at yourself," Gottheimer offered, "is a much safer ground."

Fred Talbott, a Vanderbilt University communications professor who taught humor writing to former President George H.W. Bush's speechwriting team, agrees -- especially when it comes to the White House hopefuls.

"All of them better learn self-effacing humor because they're all shooting for the ultimate power trip and when you're in that power position, you should never joke down on others," Talbott said.

To Talbott, "It's the ultimate abuse of power."

"In terms of humor, I think McCain is untrained and he doesn't have good foresight when he tries to use it," he said. Referencing McCain's "Bomb, Bomb Iran" backfire, Talbott calls it "stupid" and "totally irresponsible."

"I think he didn't have a good understanding of taste when he tried to deliver it," Talbott said. "They've got to master timing, they've got to master delivery before they even start picking the subject matter of their jokes."

"Sometimes you just want to take the cup of tension in the room," Gottheimer said. "Politicians will sometimes do that and even if it's not a canned joke, they do it to ease things up and seem more real."

Still, Gottheimer said, "There are some things that are off-limits."

"With people dying every day, how do you make light of that?"

It's a gray area, it seems, even for those who make a business of prepping political rhetoric. Gottheimer draws a line but Talbott doesn't think Iraq is off-limits. In fact, he doesn't think anything is.

"The problem is that people have made the Iraq conflict holy," Talbott said. "And it's not. It's a tragic situation. It's a tragic comedy."

"You've got to be able to joke about everything," he said. "Humor squeezes out the truth. It makes us look at the reality."

Compared to comedians, Gottheimer argues, "Politicians have a different charge. There's still a decorum, and you have the line you're pushing and you have to know your audience."

In his experience, politicians take different approaches to banter on the late-night circuit.

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