White House Hopefuls Turn Up the Humor

The rise of the shared video site YouTube offers another showcase this year for premeditated political humor. A parody of the last episode of The Sopranos, starring the Clintons, was "very clever," Schacter says. Parvin likes a playful Fred Thompson video targeting liberal filmmaker Michael Moore.

Republican Thompson, a professional actor and former Tennessee senator, had criticized Moore for visiting and praising Cuba in Sicko, Moore's new movie assailing the U.S. health care system. Moore challenged Thompson to a debate and said he smoked Cuban cigars in violation of a trade embargo.

"I don't think I have time for you," a cigar-chomping Thompson says in the video. He also says "your buddy" Fidel Castro put a dissident filmmaker into a mental institution. "A mental institution, Michael," Thompson says. "Might be something you ought to think about."

Parvin says the Thompson video is an example of how humor can work as an offensive weapon. He says even zingers should be "good-natured and funny," not mean.

Huckabee, a self-described former class clown who says his wisecracks arise from "spontaneous combustion," hit the right note at an MSNBC debate. "We've had a Congress that's spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop," he said. Katz says that passes his test for zingers: "Do I like Mike Huckabee better for telling that joke?"

Huckabee won so much acclaim for the line that he used it to raise money. He asked donors to contribute the price of their last haircut and netted $40,000. "Most people don't take that expensive a haircut, unfortunately," he says.

Like all public speakers, politicians tend to tell the same jokes over and over. That's another risk.

McCain for years has said Congress spends money "like a drunken sailor," then adds that "I received an e-mail recently from a guy who said, as a former drunken sailor, I resent being compared to members of Congress." Writing in National Review, political scientist John Pitney of Claremont McKenna College called it a "tired old joke." Yet it still gets chuckles.

A joke is ready for retirement when listeners mouth it with the speaker or ignore the punch line, Keller says.

"Anyone who tells what is supposed to be an amusing joke and is greeted by a dead silence is going to drop it," he says. "This is a self-correcting process."

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