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.

"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."

Next up appears to be conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh whose Web site features a song called "Barack the Magic Negro" to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon."

The song, performed by white comedian Paul Shanklink mimicking the Rev. Al Sharpton, has hit a bad note among liberal bloggers, fresh off Imus' fall from grace.

No Laughing Matter

Sometimes, what a politician or a president doesn't say speaks louder than any words.

At this year's annual White House correspondents dinner, the president declined the opportunity to yuck it up with the reporters, dignitaries and celebrities who gathered for the gala.

Traditionally an opportunity to exchange friendly barbs with daily foes, the president said that out of respect for those who died in the massacre at Virginia Tech, he would forgo humor in favor of solemnity.

Many respected the president's decision, but some wondered how the events at Virginia Tech, while certainly tragic, differed in magnitude from the toll suffered by U.S. soldiers engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There seems to be no certain formula -- no moment at which it's right or better to invoke humor than any other. And while laughter may still be known as the world's best medicine, it still proves fatal to some politicians.