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March 26, 2011

Politicians find jokes really are on them

"Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments flit away and a sunny spirit takes their place."

_ Mark Twain

Fair enough. Still, one wonders whether Twain's (his actual name, of course, being Samuel Langhorne Clemens) wife, Olivia, found all his attempts at humor so amusing.

Not if she was at all like my bride of 32 years, whose short left hooks to the ribs in response to my perfectly hilarious quips are the envy of professional pugilists from here to Madison Square Garden.

I'm reasonably certain that sometime in the far distant future when my family is watching my casket lowered into the grave that one of my adult children will mutter, "Well, at least they're gone now."

The others will nod sagely and say in unison: "The jokes and bad puns. Finally gone."

With that context firmly in place, What is it that compels people in the public eye _ who should know better _ to make us cringe with their feeble and inappropriate attempts at humor?

What got me thinking about this was comedian Gilbert Gottfried's tasteless jokes about the tragic earthquakes and tsunami in Japan that cost him his longtime gig as the voice of the duck in Aflac commercials. Aflac does 75 percent of its insurance business in Japan.

The rapper 50 Cent also got into trouble for making light of the suffering of millions of Japanese people.

Nothing, it appears, is too sacred.

All this, of course, is nothing new. When I was a kid, ridiculing Helen Keller was all the rage. The reason why my little friends and I would think jokes about a courageous and inspirational deaf and blind woman were funny escapes me now, but I certainly told my share of them.

Many grown-up politicians, it seems, really aspire to become stand-up comics.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan, was getting ready to do his weekly Saturday address on National Public Radio when he tried to amuse technicians during a sound check by saying this:

"My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."

Even though it didn't immediately go out over the radio, the quip was leaked to the public. The Soviet Union leadership was not amused, and the Soviet Far East Army was placed on alert.

The Soviet official news agency, TASS, said the "USSR condemns this unprecedentedly hostile attack of U.S. President."

Similarly, 2008 presidential candidate John McCain gave a speech at a Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall in South Carolina and was asked whether he thought our military should "send an air mail message to Tehran."

McCain responded by changing the words to the Beach Boys' classic "Barbara Ann" by singing: "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran."

Later asked if his attempt at humor was insensitive, McCain responded: "Insensitive to what? The Iranians?"

Our current president is also not immune to the comedy bug, to his regret.

Appearing on "the Tonight Show With Jay Leno," President Barack Obama joked that his 129 bowling average "was like the Special Olympics or something."

The White House started apologizing for that one before the show even aired and continued for weeks thereafter.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl offered this little riddle last year about Obama and Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid at a Republican Senatorial Committee retreat:

"So Obama, Pelosi and Reid are in a row boat, and it springs a leak and starts to sink. Who gets saved? Answer: The American people."

Joking about the death of a president or vice president rarely gets good reviews.

In 1988, Democratic Sen. John Kerry said this about much-ridiculed Vice President Dan Quayle and President George H.W. Bush:

"Somebody told me the other day that the Secret Service has orders that if George Bush is shot, they're to shoot Quayle," he said. "There isn't any press here, is there?"

"Humor can be dissected as a frog can," said author E. B. White, "but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind."

I confess my profession isn't immune to tasteless humor, based on this oft-quoted and apocryphal question by someone who had to be the world's worst journalist:

"Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?"

Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208.

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