5 Types of Political Humor: The Good and Bad

I was recently quoted in The Hill newspaper regarding the role that humor plays in politics. The writer of the piece, Christian Heinze (also a terrific blogger at GOP12), asked me to comment on the advantages (and disadvantages) of humor in a political campaign.

Inspired by Christian’s question, I’m going to go into more detail on that topic today and break down five different types of humor (each with a video example).

Candidates who have a natural humor often have an easier time relating with voters. But humor is not a prerequisite for winning (Mike Huckabee had a better sense of humor than John McCain), and humorless candidates shouldn’t try to force it. Candidates who do force it risk looking like they’re trying too hard, which usually plays badly with voters.

#1: Self-Effacing Humor

Few types of humor are as appealing as gently self-effacing humor. A little goes a long way here – no candidate should lapse into “shtick.” But self-effacing humor that acknowledges a widely-lampooned trait demonstrates a candidate’s willingness to laugh at him or herself, something the public tends to appreciate. Al Gore offered a nice demonstration of self-effacing humor in 1996, playing off his “stiff” reputation (Video no longer available).

#2: Gently Ribbing Opponent

“Mean” humor doesn’t play well, but gentle jabs at one’s opponent often do. Ronald Reagan was a master of this, delivering a killer line with a mile-wide smile. In this famous clip from 1980, Mr. Reagan counters President Carter’s attack with a killer one-liner that’s still often quoted today.


#3: Definitional Wit

Humor is at its best when it serves a specific purpose. One such purpose is to help define yourself – or your opponents – as something specific, using humor as the delivery vehicle. In 2008, Sarah Palin got off a terrific one-liner days after her selection as John McCain’s running mate. Sure, it was lampooned, but it also helped establish the relative unknown as a tough and credible player in the election.


#4: Inappropriate Humor

The political hall of shame is filled with candidates who, in being “humorous,” only demonstrated their cluelessness. John McCain gleefully singing “Bomb Iran” to the tune of The Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” is one such example. But my favorite cringe-worthy example is when Mitt Romney tried to show his cultural “hipness” with a group of African-American school students.


#5: Sarcasm

Sarcasm rarely plays well, as candidate Barack Obama learned in the days following his 2008 Iowa primary win. Within days of the next primary in New Hampshire in which he was heavily favored, Mr. Obama made a bitter and unpleasant crack about Hillary Clinton’s lack of popularity. Voters resented it, and rewarded Ms. Clinton with an unexpected win in New Hampshire.


Come on, people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together and follow my Twitter feed right now. I’m at @MrMediaTraining.

Related: Whatever. I Was Just Being Sarcastic, Okay?

Related: Can You Stop An On-Air Laughing Fit?