Funny or Foul? The Fine Line Between Humor and Offense

"You don't want them to go in and be stand-up comedians," Gottheimer said.

Most use material from their speechwriters as "thought starters" as they calculate paths to go down that could be funny without seeming canned.

Humor as Truth Serum

Talbott takes a different tack, touting humor as "the greatest instrument to grab truth and hold it up for everyone to see."

"The neatest thing about humor is that there is no line," he said. "If you need to get the public's attention and you realize there is something quirky about the Iraq situation, humor can be a great instrument."

Talbott describes humor as "situational;" more often than not, even a poorly delivered joke can be revealing.

In 2004, when President Bush's joke at the Radio-Television Correspondents Dinner about weapons of mass destruction backfired in the national spotlight, Talbott insists it served a larger purpose though Bush was chastised for insensitivity when so many lives had been lost in the war effort.

"I think it served a wonderful purpose," Talbott said. "It showed us that he is stupid. Whoever wrote that line for him, and his acceptance of it and use of it were stupid."

Funny Is Fleeting, Gaffes Live Forever

While politics and humor aren't new to one another, what is changing the game are the digital aftershocks of such gaffes, which live in an endless loop on YouTube and in the blogosphere.

Just ask former Sen. George Allen, R-Va.

Allen called a video-camera-toting Indian-American staffer of his Democratic opponent a "macaca."

"So, welcome. Let's give a welcome to macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia," Allen said to the audience at his campaign event, staring into the camera.

Debated endlessly on the Internet and gaining entries in various online dictionaries, "macaca," in some cultures, is considered a racial slur against African immigrants.

Allen insisted that his comments weren't a xenophobic slam against the South Asian volunteer, but by then it was too late.

The video clip reverberated across the political world, and Allen found himself apologizing a few days later to Indian-American business leaders in Hindi.

A few months later, Allen lost his bid for re-election.

With his use of "macaca," Allen could have been going for a quick hit of humor in the gathered group, when in reality most wouldn't.

"You'll get a quick hit from the five people in front of you, but you're going to get burned by the 5,000 who are going to watch it later," Gottheimer said, "and it's just stupid."

Not only that, Gottheimer added, "It's just not funny."

Imus Fired, Limbaugh Laughs Again

Digging yourself out of the hole becomes a matter of personal credibility, political good will, and how eager the public is to forgive you.

Referencing the recent dethroning of radio host Don Imus after he made disparaging comments about African-American members of the Rutgers women's basketball team, Gottheimer said, "a lot of the conversation was, he had already done this a few other times. When the cards were down, when the moment came up and the check was due, they threw him out of the bar."

The action and the recovery, he said, are "contextual -- who it is and to whom."

Talbott thinks it boils down to honesty and sincerity.

"This country loves to forgive people," he said. "All you've got to do is say I'm sorry. And it works. It can live forever. But you've got to make the effort to dismiss it. And say you're sorry and mean it."

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