Last night at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, President Obama did some stand-up comedy. To be sure, he has done this before. But last night’s comedy routine was thought-provoking and it illustrated that now the President not only aestheticizes politics but also politicizes aesthetics. In doing so, we have a blurring of the line between politics and aesthetics which makes it complicated for us to know which is which. But, more importantly for this blog on the schlemiel, is the fact that he does this by playing the schlemiel whose dreams don’t match up with reality. The genius of the schlemiel routine is that the subject of this blurring of lines is the President’s politicized and aestheticized identity. To top it off, the President’s scriptwriter (or writers) included a joke that comes from one of the most notable schlemiels in American-Schlemiel history: Groucho Marx. The place of the schlemiel in this routine should not go by unnoticed. So, I’ll briefly sketch out some of its outlines so you can see the figure of the schlemiel emerge in the President’s routine.
What made many of President Obama’s jokes so interesting was that they were not simply jabs at the Right’s views of him. Rather, they were all based on the comic structure of self-reflection and self-deprecation. By putting himself down, a trick used by many stand-up comics, he was able to efface many negative images of him and gain sympathy from the audience. It’s the kind of charm that we see in schlemiel-comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, or Sasha Baron Cohen.
One good example of this is when President Obama theatricalizes the claim that he was (and ‘still is’) a Muslim and a Socialist. He does this by way of the structure of reflection: “I have to admit, I look in the mirror and I have to admit that I’m not the strapping young socialist I used to be.”
President Obama also played on the theme of improving his image by imitating Michelle’s new hair style. But, as he comically notes, this image was not enough. He’s still a schlemiel. His dream of success is not meeting reality. He needs help.
And who but Steven Speilberg comes to the Schlemiel’s rescue. In Speilberg’s “Obama” mock-up the image of the President is, in some ways, restored. He is the dream and the reality. Daniel Day Lewis is trying to imitate him:
Noting that President Obama is already a “lame duck,” Spielberg introduces the schlemiel theme: President Obama is aging and unpopular. There seems to be no hope for him. The comic concert of this video works on the doppelganger. Here, Daniel Day Lewis is said to have become President Obama when we can all see that this is a sham. What makes Obama funny in this piece is that he acts “as if” he is imitating President Obama. And this works to efface the line between image and reality. The whole distinction itself, Spielberg seems to be saying, is a joke. In other words, the media has gone to far and has made him into a schlemiel.
But this message is driven home by the last joke the President makes; drawn straight from Groucho (“and not Karl”) Marx:
“Before I speak, I have something important to say.”
However, and this is the unspoken implication, when the President opens his mouth the press effaces that “something important” that he wanted to say. The media caricatures everything the President says and this conflicts with his intentions. His ‘real’ words will always be mediated for the better or for the worse.
In other words, the President will always be made into a schlemiel by the media. He will always be misunderstood. Like a schlemiel, he is largely innocent while the media is guilty.
But of what?
The final note, which follows the joke, spells it out. The media is guilty of cynicism and a lack of trust:
And so, these men and women should inspire all of us in this room to live up to those same standards; to be worthy of their trust; to do our jobs with the same fidelity, and the same integrity, and the same sense of purpose, and the same love of country. Because if we’re only focused on profits or ratings or polls, then we’re contributing to the cynicism that so many people feel right now.
After saying this, only a few people in the room clap. After all, the President was implying that the majority of “us” (which could either mean people in the media or Americans in general) have become cynical. This isn’t funny.
To be sure, the choice of words and the response is very telling. Given the President’s jokes last night, one can say that he played the schlemiel routine in an effort to regain trust. In other words, he used the schlemiel to charm the audience.
The interesting thing about all of this, is that the schlemiel has been used by Woody Allen, Charlie Chaplin, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Sasha Baron Cohen (and many other American comedians and writers) to create an awkward but charming character. It works to make these artists popular but can it work within the realm of politics?
What happens in routines like this is that the schlemiel is used to blur the line between politics and aesthetics or, at the very least, to put their relationship into question. At the end of his essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the Jewish-German thinker Walter Benjamin spoke explicitly of his worries about the aestheticization of politics in the modern age. He linked it directly to the media, film, photography, and speed. However, he saw the fear as relating to the glorification of destruction in fascism. And this may not concern us as fascism is not on the table with such jokes. However, what we can walk away from this performance with is the fact that Benjamin warned us that the blurring of the lines between aesthetics and politics happens when we are radically alienated from ourselves. And this happens, for him, by way of mass media. He didn’t have twitter, facebook, live feeds, real time news, etc. But he could see the enlargement of mass alienation and mass cynicism coming.
The cynicism that President Obama mentioned, the cynicism that he tried to relieve by way of his schlemiel routine, is still with us. Benjamin understood (like Kafka, as he says to Gershom Scholem) that in a time of crisis, only a fool can help. The question is whether the fool, that is, the schlemiel’s help can do humanity any good. This question remains alive today and it was alive last night as President Obama did his comic routine. What this crisis is all about is clearer to us, however, than it was for Benjamin. Its clear to the President as well: it’s a crisis of trust and the stakes are high. Cynicism may be too much for the Schlemiel. If that is the case, we may be in big trouble.