Presidential Comedy: On the Meaning and Task of President Obama’s Comedic Performances


Just yesterday, Zach Galifianakis’s comic interview of President Obama – on his show “Between the Two Ferns” – went viral.  I noticed that some of my friends on facebook were upset about the video and believed that President Obama was trivializing his Presidency by going on the show and doing a comic routine with Galifianakis.  And in a press conference yesterday, Jay Carney was asked about whether he thought it had this negative effect and if it had been discussed before the President decided to make an appearance.  Skirting the issue as to whether or not this tarnishes the image of the President, Carney pointed out that the task of the President was not to just get facetime.  Rather, he was looking to promote the “Affordable Care Act.”  There is ample evidence of this in the interview since Galifianakis gives the President a few minutes to discuss it.   And the comic interview ends with Galifianakis showing the President a bunch of spider bites on his arm.  Given the pitch, one knows the punch line: “Zach, you should look into the Affordable Care Act.  You need a doctor.”  Because, “You,” like many young Americans, “think you are invincible (not “invisible”) but you’re not.”

What has been missed in this discussion about the President’s appearance on the show is the fact that the President has done comedy before.   In fact, I wrote on his comedic performance at the Presidential Correspondents’ Dinner in April 2013.  As I noted, President Obama told a Groucho Marx joke and even played a role in a comic short written and directed by none other than Steven Speilberg.


The fundamental difference between his appearance on “Between the Ferns” and his comedic performance in the film (and on the podium) at the Presidential Correspondents’ Dinner was the fact that in film and on the podium he played the role of the schlemiel.  Here, in contrast, Galifianakis plays the role of the schlemiel while President Obama appears serious.  To be sure, he isn’t doing comedy so much as humoring a schlemiel.

I find this shift in comedic roles to be telling.

The shift is tactical and, obviously, political.  And it shows us how the schlemiel can be used, politically, depending on the context and the goals.  With regard to the comedic performance at the Presidential Correspondence Dinner, President Obama was, at that time, trying to regain the confidence of the public.  As I noted in my blog entry on that performance, President Obama, at the end, tells the audience that the American public has become too cynical and had a hard time trusting him.  And this, one can see, is directly related to why he played a schlemiel of the Eastern European variety: the schlemiel is, in the Eastern European style of Jewish comedy (which has been inherited, in part, by Hollywood), a comic character who, oftentimes, gains the trust of his or her audience by way of absent-mindedness, naivite, and charm.   The schlemiel, in other words, can help to counteract cynicism.  To be sure, Ruth Wisse, in her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, notes several times how the schlemiel creates a tension between hope and skepticism (or, at the extreme, cynicism).   But, here, as in many other instances of the contemporary schlemiel, that tension is effaced and gives more power to hope over cynicism.  (And as I have noted in relation to what President Obama did at this dinner, the topic of encountering cynicism finds an interesting correlate in the work of Slavoj Zizek.)

In contrast to his comedic use of the schlemiel, his appearance on “Between the Two Ferns” is serious. Zach Galifianakis plays the schlemiel.  But this performance has a different task.  Instead of gaining trust and effacing cynicism, President Obama is looking to present a serious issue: The Affordable Care Act.  To do this, he must be serious.  Now, instead of being endearing, the naivite of Zach Galifianakis (which is tainted with cynicism, no less) comes across as plain stupid.  Here the schlemiel is depicted as he was by Jews in Germany (not in Eastern Europe); this schlemiel does things that are to be laughed at because they are in need of correction.  His cynicism and lack of intelligence are an obstacle to his health and well-being.  Here, President Obama is out to correct the misguided schlemiel, Zach Galifianakis. The message: don’t be like Zach, sign up and get a doctor; you’re not invincible.  And stop being so cynical.

The fact that the President can sometimes play the schlemiel and other times mock the schlemiel shows us that he is versatile in his comic performances.  But, more importantly, it shows us that the schlemiel has a role in the crafting of his public image and his political strategy.    This is a fascinating twist because, as Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse have pointed out in their work on the schlemiel, the schlemiel is often apolitical.  If anything, it challenges politics.

For instance, take a look at the beginning of Wisse’s The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, and you will see several jokes that parody politics and power.   Here we see the schlemiel employed, on the contrary, for political purposes.  To be sure, there is a lot to learn from this.  The political appropriation of the schlemiel by a Presidential administration is a topic that needs attention and schlemiel theory is leading the way in opening up this new discourse.  I hope to write more on this in the near future.

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