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Laughing at Obama

Barack Obama with a red nose

John O'Farrell
The George Bush presidency has been rich pickings for those in one line of work - comedy. But with Barack Obama's election win steeped in historical significance, is America's new leader beyond comic reproach? By John O'Farrell.

When I wrote for Spitting Image and a new politician came on the scene, the news crews would always turn up to see the puppet being made and maybe interview us about how we were going to portray him.

"Er, well, this John Major bloke seems like he's really boring, so we might have him sitting next to Edwina Currie and maybe, totally failing to respond to her flirting…"

So we got that one right then.

Just as a cartoonist will distort and enlarge any tiny distinguishing physical feature, a satirist has to try and spot what it is that is distinctive and interesting about any new personality and then mercilessly exaggerate it until it becomes a hideous and character-defining flaw.

Kenneth Baker
Kenneth Baker gets 'mercilessly exaggerated' by Spitting Image

Kenneth Baker - former Conservative cabinet minister - is a bit slimy. Make him a slug.

Mrs Thatcher is pretty ballsy for a woman. Have her stand at the urinals besides the other ministers.

Roy Hattersley has slightly lispy sibilants. So water sprays out of his mouth when he talks.

Sometimes the most unexpected thing defines a character.

We wrote a sketch in which John Major was talking to Norma about eating peas, and the blandness of England's most popular vegetable struck a chord, and before long Labour MPs were shouting out "Have you had your peas John?" as he stood up for Prime Minister's Question Time.

In the 80s and 90s, it feels like we went through a golden age for satirists - the simplistic Ronnie Reagan, or Bill Clinton locked inside the Oval Office with his intern.

Boris Yeltsin staggering around the Kremlin with a vodka bottle goosing passing female heads of state. Tony Blair morphed from the well meaning vicar to Stalin and then was replaced by Gordon Brown who is portrayed as er - well Stalin again.

Lull in cynicism

You can't help wondering if we need a new source of ideas.

So what will the satirists make of Barack Obama?

Boris Yeltsin
Shooting fish in a barrel: Yeltsin, Clinton, Major made 90s a vintage decade

Well, whatever they say, the audience is not going to fall about laughing just yet. Every few years there comes a rare interval in politics when the usually sceptical general public are filled with hope and optimism and belief.

A joke against Obama right now might get an appreciative chuckle, but you would almost be able to hear much of the audience thinking "Yeah, but he's a huge improvement on the last schmuck - I mean give the guy a chance."

You have to wait until at least the end of the month before everyone's bored to death of him and convinced that this is the worst leader ever.

Obama's brand of visionary optimism might be the first bubble the satirists will try to prick.

Jon Stewart's Daily Show played an Obama campaign speech where it started to rain and the presidential candidate said "The sun will be shining after Tuesday..." They cut back to an incredulous Stewart who said "What?! The weather is going to be better in an Obama presidency?!"

You could argue that there is nothing left to satirise when the first policy announcement made by the new president is that he is going to get his angelic daughters a new puppy. Maybe we have all died and gone to happy bunny land.

Sitcom potential

Embarrassing relations might be another possible angle. On election night, they cut to Obama's half brother in Kenya chanting "We're going to the White House!"

OBAMA SATIRE SO FAR...
'Obama win causes obsessive supporters to realise how empty their lives are' - Onion.com
'Obama Releases List of Approved Jokes About Himself' - BorowitzReport.com
'President-elect Barack Obama vows to enslave white people' - UnconfirmedSources.com
'Obama stripped of title after failing drug test' - Newsbiscuit.com
'Nation elects first largely Hawaiian president' - Daily Show

You can't help feeling there's a whole sitcom in there somewhere.

Writers submitting ideas to the satirical website I now edit have been coming at Obama from all sorts of angles.

The most cynical jokes tend to relate to the idea of this identikit saint who visits his dying granny to win the votes of the elderly in Florida, and then makes sure of an extra sympathy vote the day before election day by having her life support machine turned off.

But this rather bleak angle just doesn't ring true, because at the moment the president elect really does seem sincere, decent and dare I say it, just a little bit cool.

Check out the presidential dance off on YouTube for example - a piece of satire that actually builds up Barack Obama's image.

Politicians who are self-aware and prepared to laugh at themselves are always going to be harder to mock than those that take themselves far too seriously.

Obama's race is also going to make audiences slightly nervous about whether they are actually to laugh at him. Some of the best comedy surrounding Obama has actually been about white people tip-toeing around the race issue. Somehow I can't see Rory Bremner blacking up to do the new president.

Perhaps we should all club together and send a new intern into the White House, because any way you look at it, the new president appears to be beyond satire at the moment. But what was that thing that Obama kept promising us? Oh, that's right - change.

John O'Farrell is editor of the satirical website Newsbiscuit.com.


Below is a selection of your comments.

We pride ourselves on a rich heritage of comedy in this country, but the truth is that there is almost no high quality satire to be found on British television. Where is our equivalent of 'The Daily Show' with Jon Stewart? 'The Thick of It' is the only memorable series we have had since the days of 'Spitting Image' and 'Yes Minister'.
Matt Harrison, London, UK

Surely there's got to be a joke to be made about Obama being a homeless guy asking for change? Perhaps even satirising the Americans who think Obama is a communist - who says he has to be the actual butt of the jokes? I wouldn't worry too much about satirists, they'll find something. Private Eye's depiction of Gordon Brown as Stalin has turned out to be remarkably apt. Still, McCain and Palin would have been an absolute dream to poke fun at.
Douglas Daniel, Glasgow, Scotland

Obama is mixed race and sensitivities are such that that will restrict satire in these politically correct days. Also, since most comedians and the media are on the left there will be limited comedy. For example, Spitting image was at its height during the Tory years but during the Blair years satire was very limited. Now that the Democrats are in charge in the States the comedy writers will be on the dole. They will come back into force when Mrs Palin is president (only joking!)
Bob Gardiner, Kirkbymoorside, UK

You know the world truly has gone mad when the even the satirists have bought into the saccharine hyperbole surrounding Obama. Obama is an easy target for satire. You're just letting your political prejudice and fear of being labelled "racist" prevent you from doing your job.
Ollie, Loughborough

Puppies, little girls...I for one am feeling a little nauseous already. A month may be far too long to wait. Bring it on, Newsbiscuit!
Clare D, Chester

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