WASHINGTON — Did you hear the one about the presidential candidates trying to be funny?
Spurred by a crowded 18-person field and new avenues such as YouTube, White House wannabes increasingly are turning to humor. Used well, it can help them stand out, score points and boost that all-important likability quotient. Almost anything is fair game these days for a quip or video, including spouses, rivals, weight, age, haircuts, attire and even religion.
What do you pray for? Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, at a forum on faith: "Oh Lord, why can't you help me lose weight?" How long did God take to create the world? Republican Mike Huckabee, at a debate: "I don't know. I wasn't there."
"Humor is the great underutilized strategic tool," says Mark Katz, who wrote humorous material for Bill Clinton and Al Gore and now runs The Sound Bite Institute, a creative think tank. "You can say things using humor that otherwise never get said. It smartens up a message."
That's assuming candidates can get it right. "Every time you get up to do humor it's a risk. Going to the line is what makes it funny — but you don't know where the line is, says Landon Parvin, who has written humor for Ronald Reagan and the current President Bush.
Humor carries special risk in a campaign playing out against the painful, unpopular war in Iraq. "You want to be careful not to joke too much lest you be accused of not taking things seriously enough," says John Schacter, a humor writer for politicians in both parties.
The late Mo Udall, borrowing conservative pundit James J. Kilpatrick's verdict on Udall's failed 1976 presidential bid, titled his 1988 autobiography Too Funny to Be President. The witty Arizona congressman maintained, however, that humor is a political necessity and crammed the book with jokes.
Most Americans agree, or at least don't mind humor on the campaign trail. Eight in 10 in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll this month said it is very important or somewhat important to them that a presidential candidate have a sense of humor. So let the jokes begin.
And let them begin with what's usually the safest and most effective political joke technique: self-deprecation.
Clinton, the New York senator, has been poking fun at her own singing since early this year, when a clip of her off-key rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner became a YouTube hit. Her crack about weight loss at a forum shown on CNN was "a fabulous line," says Steven Keller, a political communication expert at George Washington University. "It has appeal to many middle-aged women who are fighting their thighs," he says.
Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Barack Obama make jokes about their wives to suggest that their feet are on the ground. Here's Obama, the Illinois senator, describing his deliberations about whether to run for the state Legislature years ago: "I did what I often do when I'm confronted with a difficult decision. I prayed on it. Amen. And then I asked my wife. Amen. And, after consulting these two higher powers … "
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, often tells audiences that before he arrived, he asked his wife, "Ann, did you ever in your wildest dreams think that I'd be here in (fill in town) speaking to (fill in group)?"
Her response: "Mitt, you weren't in my wildest dreams."