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.
Candidate, tease thyself
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."
Humor experts love that joke.
"You don't see it coming. It plays against type. He's supposed to be a matinee idol, and here you have his own wife" cutting him down to size, Katz says. It's also constructed in a way that can be used over and over in different places, he says.
Keller says the joke "shows a sense of perspective" and reminds people on a subconscious level that Romney, a Mormon, "is not a polygamist, he's been married to the same woman for most of his life, he's good-looking but he puts himself down. It's all there."
Jokes that disarm
Jokes can help neutralize any number of political and personal problems.
One classic was the fake telegram then-senator John F. Kennedy read from his father at the 1958 Gridiron Dinner in Washington: "Don't buy a single vote more than is necessary — I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide." With that, Kennedy defused allegations that his rich father was trying to buy him the 1960 election.
Reagan scored a similar coup regarding his age, 73, when he ran for re-election in 1984 against Walter Mondale, then 56. "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience," Reagan said during a debate. Mondale laughed and the issue became moot.
This year, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., is making pre-emptive cracks about his age (63) and late-in-life fatherhood (his daughters are 5 and 2). "I'm probably the only one who gets mailings from AARP and diaper services," he often says.
Obama faces potential wariness about his name. He introduces the topic by describing his first run for office: People everywhere asked, "Where did you get this name, Barack Obama? They'd mispronounce it to me. They would call me Alabama or Yo-Mama, and I'd have to explain it was Obama; my father was from Kenya, from Africa; my mother was from Kansas."
The Mormon faith, with its polygamous past, poses a similar challenge for Romney. He handled it this way at a St. Patrick's Day breakfast in 2005, when he was governor: "I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman … and a woman …and a woman."
Romney hasn't used the joke since then, his campaign says, but Schacter says he should: "I thought it was great. It was unexpected, and it defused some of the tension" about his religion.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., made short, funny work of a question about his propensity for verbal gaffes and verbosity in general. "Can you reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage?" moderator Brian Williams asked him at an MSNBC debate in April.
"Yes," Biden said. As it became clear that was his entire answer, the audience roared.
Then there's Democrat John Edwards and the $400 haircut, a private expense that was listed on a publicly disclosed campaign-spending report. The former North Carolina senator did damage control last month on NBC's The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Asked why he and his wife, Elizabeth, eat at Wendy's on their wedding anniversary, Edwards said: "You can't spend money on food when you're spending money on haircuts."
The risk-reward ratio
Sometimes humor is the best way to cope with a political problem. Republican John McCain's campaign is hemorrhaging money and staff, but his sense of humor is helping convey resilience. One of his lines from hard times past has new meaning: "In the words of Chairman Mao, it's always darkest before it's totally black."
Yet humor does have its limits. Some politicians have asked Parvin for joke material to defuse serious trouble. "If you're about to be indicted, that's too far a reach," he says. "I tell them no, it is serious, you need to be serious about it."
War, as President Bush learned, is also best avoided. At the White House Correspondents Dinner in May 2004, he appeared in a video searching under furniture in the Oval Office.
"Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere," he said. Although the dinner is a traditional showcase for presidential humor, there was scathing backlash from Democrats, anti-war liberals and relatives of servicemembers. They said it was disgraceful that Bush was making light of a decision to go to war.
Off-the-cuff jokes are another risky move but can be valuable for both candidate and voter. "Spontaneous humor gives a speaker the ability to connect with his audience. It makes that person seem human and likable," Keller says.
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani pulled that off at a CNN debate last month when microphone problems interrupted his answer to a question about his differences with Catholic bishops. Told lightning was the culprit, he laughed and said: "For someone who went to parochial schools his whole life, this is a very frightening thing."
McCain has been criticized by fellow Republicans for backing a plan to allow millions of illegal immigrants to become citizens. When his rivals attacked his stance at the CNN debate, he broke up the audience by saying, "Muchas gracias."
In the Democratic debate Monday featuring video submissions from YouTube users, the questions and the candidates were edgier than usual. Edwards, asked to name something he doesn't like about Clinton, stared at the brightly colored jacket she was wearing: "I'm not sure about that coat."
And Biden, asked to say what he liked about Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, replied: "Dennis, the thing I like best about you is your wife." Elizabeth Kucinich is tall, red-haired, British and 31 years younger than her 60-year-old husband.
In January, Clinton discovered the unintended consequences of spontaneity when she rephrased a question as "what in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men?" and then grinned. Her listeners in Davenport, Iowa, laughed for 30 seconds; many assumed it was an allusion to her unfaithful husband.
Not so, she told reporters later: "You guys keep telling me lighten up, be funny. So I get a little funny, and now I'm being psychoanalyzed."
Katz says that in his view she was not referring to Bill Clinton, but adds: "The joke didn't work on its own terms because it accessed the wrong synapses in your brain. That's the risk-reward ratio."
Packaging humor on video
One way to take control of humor is to make funny ads and videos. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has moved up to double-digits in Iowa polls since starting a series of ads called "Job Interview." Each is a skit with a crass interviewer and the bemused governor.
In one, the interviewer reviews the Democrat's résumé— congressman, U.S. energy secretary, United Nations ambassador, Nobel Peace Prize nominee — and chews food as he asks, "So, what makes you think you can be president?"
"The public likes politicians to bring themselves down a notch," Richardson says. "Everyone's gone through a job interview. Everybody's been interviewed by some jerk who doesn't think you're very good. People can relate to that."
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."