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Comedy Tomorrow, History Tonight

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, November 14, 2008

Barack Obama's election victory may have been good for the country, but it's been awful for comedians. Just ask poor Don Rickles.

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He was absolutely killing the audience on David Letterman's show the other night with his trademark scorched-earth put-downs. Rickles seemed at the top of his game -- until he tried to tell a joke about the new president-elect. Not even a well-timed rimshot from the band could have saved him.

It was just a quick bit in which he imagined Obama, faced with his first international crisis, telling his advisers he couldn't be interrupted because he was busy playing basketball. The joke bombed.

Rickles's attempts to save the gag only made things worse, and he quickly moved on after pointing out that it was just a basketball joke "that I should have never done."

As I said, poor Don Rickles. After all, he practically invented the in-your-face, politically incorrect style of humor that is so many comedians' meal tickets these days. It must have been galling to have to sheepishly disavow a joke that was so inoffensive compared with the rest of his oeuvre.

And what was wrong with the joke, anyway? "Wrong" is too strong a word; "anachronistic" and "off-center" might be closer to the mark. It is a fact that Obama (like George W. Bush) is something of a gym rat, and it is a fact that Obama (unlike Bush) likes to spend his time in the gym playing basketball. His sinking a three-pointer during his trip to Kuwait was one of the indelible moments of the long campaign.

So why didn't the audience laugh? The main reason, I think, is that "black men playing basketball" is a stereotype, and the audience probably felt this was an inappropriate way to talk about the first black president-elect. Even though, as I noted, he does love to play basketball. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

I'm not mad at 82-year-old Don Rickles, who owes his long career to the artful exploitation of stereotypes. But I do think I'm going to enjoy watching and commenting on the cultural attitude adjustments made necessary by this first-in-history presidency.

As the Obama family settles into the White House, popular culture will probably have a string of awkward encounters with stereotypes. I'm going to enjoy this because, in the end, what will be lost is the ability to paint "African American culture" with a broad brush. To the extent that the Obama family's tastes or habits seem in any way distinctive, they will have to be seen as the Obama family's specific tastes and habits -- attributable not to a group but to a set of individuals. The idea that "all black people" are like this or like that has always been absurd, and this absurdity becomes inescapable when a black person occupies the singular position of head of state.

Conversely, every first family has the unique ability to share its interests and enthusiasms with the nation. If, for example, it turns out that the Obamas have a knowledgeable appreciation of African American history and culture, many people might come to realize that "black history" is really just American history -- and that it's profoundly relevant all year round, not just in February.

All of which is admirable and high-minded, but not very funny. I wouldn't worry, though. Soon enough, comedians will find a way to safely skewer the new president.

Right now, it's not at all safe -- and that's understandable. Americans are rightly proud of the historic advance that Obama's election represents. Our nation's struggle with race and racism goes back nearly 400 years; we can afford to take a few weeks or months to savor this moment. Those people in David Letterman's audience were feeling a little protective of the president-elect. They weren't quite ready for him to be turned into a borscht belt punch line.

But the afterglow won't last forever. Making fun of our political leaders is encoded in our national DNA, and this trait will inevitably express itself. Eventually, some comic will come up with a spot-on Obama impression, the way Vaughn Meader did with JFK. Eventually, audiences will revert to irreverence. Eventually, perhaps, Dave Chappelle might even bring his comic genius out of mothballs.

President-elect Obama should enjoy this honeymoon from late-night ridicule. It won't last forever.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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