Could You Eliminate Sarcasm From Your Speech?

Last year, North Korea banned sarcasm in daily conversations. That’s how dangerous (aka effective) they think humor is in dismantling an authoritarian regime. Could it? That question probably warrants another thread of research. But for a second, set aside that giant scary thought you just had about authoritarian regimes and think about this—can you imagine eliminating all sarcasm from your speech?

I can’t. It's too ingrained in American speech patterns and our current style of humor. Sarcastic statements sting because they are laced with contempt. 

In North Korea, the consequences of uttering sarcastic phrases would be “enough to make you and your family ‘disappear’ from society and end up in a political prison camp” according to Liberty In North Korea. Meetings were held to warn citizens about saying things like “a fool who cannot see the outside world, ” and “this is all America’s fault” or a version of “Thanks, Obama.”

Words are important, and not just the sarcastic ones. So, our fearless Commander In Chief better be careful saying things like this to North Korea on Twitter:

There’s no sign of sarcasm in this tweet, the contempt is direct. And it sure does make me nervous.

Jon Stewart On Satire And Its Limitations

I’ve watched a lot of interviews with Jon Stewart and I’ve always wanted to hear his perspective on the effects of satire. A few weeks ago on Charlie Rose, he spoke at length about the limits of satire in the form of The Daily Show. Give it a watch or read a portion below in full form. This excerpt picks up right after Jon described a moment in the show where they caught John McCain in a lie on tape.

Jon Stewart: We nailed you. And then what do we have to do at that point? We let you go. It's catch and release because we have to undercut it with a laugh, and it gets to the joy and frustration of doing that type of job, which is -- and it's when we realize, too, that access didn't help us. So, it's that idea, I got you, and here's my one moment and I'm going to, with a scalpel, go at the crux of your identity as a politician and expose it for everybody to see, and then I'm going to have to make a joke about it, walk away, and you're going to laugh, and it's going to humanize you. One of the difficulties of this is satire began to take the place of reality. I think this has been given a greater place in the discussion, and a larger role in the discourse than is warranted. And once that started to happen, I think you began to question if it's a good thing or a bad thing. And I know it's not a black and white issue, but controlling the culture -- and for as much fun as we could make of the tea party, like, while we were up there passing around viral videos of eviscerations, they were in a Friendlies off the highway taking over a school board. And we've just had an election where the Democrats won the popular vote by probably more than a million votes, and they don't control the presidency, they don't control the house, they don't control the senate, they don't control governorship, they don't control state legislatures. This may be the largest disconnect between majority rule and majority power that we've had in this country in ages. And I'm in no way saying -- and we're responsible, and I'm responsible. But what I am saying is there is a comforting culture that can be mistaken for real power. There's only two towns in the world I've ever been that I thought were delusional, one was Washington, D.C., but the other was Los Angeles. And the only difference between Los Angeles and Washington, is in Los Angeles they actually believe they have power. But D.C. like -- that's where it is, man.

Charlie Rose: OK. But are you saying, essentially, that whatever we're saying about culture and the influence you have on the culture, in the end, it's not political power, and in the end it's not --

Jon Stewart: And in the end it's not real cultural influence, even. It's a story we tell ourselves about the rightness of our position. But it is argument, and it's not without weight, but it is not with so much weight. It's -- I believe that culture played a good role in marriage equality. I think it brought a story out that had been so much of what occurs with inequality is ignorance, and I don't mean that in a malevolent way. I mean that in a way that I have no experience with this. I don't know what that is. So exposure to that can be positive, although, generally, in an entertainment sense, the exposure is two-dimensional.

Jon Stewart: But you have to meet force with force, and The Daily Show is -- what I would say we are -- and, again, I'm not saying this to denigrate what we did. I am so incredibly proud of this was the best iteration of for me what I could do with satire and we prosecuted it to its fullest extent as far as I was concerned, as far as my brain could go. One of the reasons I left is I just -- I would just gonna be redundant and keep going back and forth with the same thing. I'm going to really do a terrible analogy, but we were Patrick Swayze after he died in Ghost. We were in the subway yelling at dead people and raging and no one could hear us. But if we focused everything that we had in one moment at just the right time, at just the right moment with everything we had, we could move the can just a little bit...

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Jon Stewart: We're impotently raging. Zadroga was ten years of back-breaking labor by John Feal and these first responders. It was corruption at a government level at the highest order that could be done. It was the people that had been hailed as heroes that ran into burning buildings that were told by our government, the EPA, that the air was safe but the air was not safe. They are dying. They continue to die to this day. They were forced with their afflictions to go down and hat in hand, knock on doors to people who wouldn't even meet their eyesight. And those ten years of working, they did all the construction and at the very end, Cindy Lou Who came in with just a little star and went ‘bink,’ and got way more credit for it than was deserved. They deserved that and continued to.

What I’ve taken away from this exchange is that satire assists change— it doesn’t make it reality on its own. It takes thoughtful organizing and lots of dedicated people taking direct action to shift culture to the point of it being represented in our laws. Though, it's clear the application of humor or satire can be used to get people to recognize the problem. Or as Jon Stewart suggested, perhaps it needs to be applied at just the right moment to garner the attention tip the scales in the direction of the cause. In a future post, we’ll take a look at John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight and his satirical calls to action.

Writing Jokes For President Obama

President Obama has often used comedy to connect with the nation throughout his terms in office–perhaps more than any other President to date. Of course, President Obama doesn’t come up with all these zingers on his own, he has a team of speechwriters who craft jokes for his speeches.

Let’s look at the Affordable Care Act as one example. In this speech from September 2013, early in the rollout, I count 26 annotations of laughter in the transcript. I also count four instances of boos, an expression of ridicule that was directed at the opposition.

One of his former speechwriters, David Litt, commented on the President’s use of humor to get the word out on the Affordable Care Act in his New York Times Op-Ed. He said, “By March 2014, the health care exchanges were finally working, but most young people didn’t seem to know that. Not enough of them were signing up. One solution, at least in part, was for President Obama to plug the site on the comedian Zach Galifianakis’s online talk show Between Two Ferns. The commander in chief sat between two ferns and listened as the comedian asked him, “What’s it like to be the last black president?” before they got around to talking health care….The day the “Ferns” video appeared online it was viewed by 11 million people, and traffic to HealthCare.gov spiked 40 percent. Of course that video isn’t the only reason the administration can now report that 20 million people are enrolled in insurance through the Affordable Care Act. But it certainly helped get the word out.”

Even during more serious speeches, jokes are strategically woven in to connect better with the American public. Jon Lovett, one of Obama’s speech writers says, ”I think we find...jokes have a use and even in a serious speech, but they're always risky and it's so hard to explain why it's worth the risk, right? Why's it worth having a joke jammed in the middle of a serious remark about the economy or something? Well actually, if it works, people hear about it, people will talk about it. And then well, OK, well that's what we're trying to do anyway. It's a difficult thing to say well, even though you don't need it and even though the speech will be fine without it, we think it's worth saying something funny in the hopes that it resonates with people.”

Every year when I watch The White House Correspondents’ Dinner, I think about what it must be like to write jokes for the President. President Obama is a natural comedian, and this is an occasion where it’s safe to make the year’s jabs both at himself and others. But, how does his speechwriting team determine what is appropriate for the President to make a joke about?

From a scientific perspective it’s worth looking at the Benign Violation Theory. It suggests that jokes have to fall within a certain threshold of violating your beliefs to make you laugh. If the joke is too safe or too edgy then no one laughs. This margin of error is heightened for the President who is the voice of the people after all and a gaf will be heard around the world—this isn’t some basement comedy club. 

To provide some insight I’ve gathered some thoughts about the joke writing process from his speechwriters. And you can catch them all on their fantastic new political podcast, Pod Save America.

David Litt: There are some topics no president, even a genuinely funny one, can joke about. National security is off limits. So are all but the gentlest mentions of the first family...Part of the joke when the President is telling a joke, is that the President is telling a joke, and I think he understands that, too. He understands what makes him funny. You're looking for jokes that make more sense for the President to tell than for a comedian to tell.

Jon Favreau: I mean, I think the first thing we're always looking for is making sure there's a joke for every topic that you have to hit, right? So this year, we know we want to have Trump jokes, we know we need a Hillary joke, a Biden joke, a republican joke, a Merrick Garland joke. I mean, there are certain topical things in the news that you want to make sure for each one of those categories, you have a joke for. So when everyone sends in jokes, we start putting them into categories by topic and then see where we're thin and where we have too many, that's sort of the first thing.

Jon Lovett: We're starting with the topics and trying to find as many jokes as we can for all of those topics. But I think for the beginning, it's always a search for a line that's kind of confident and pithy and that makes a joke that kind of says like, "Hey, this is what this year has been about or this is what this moment's about." Like this year, he said the thing about this being his last and perhaps, the White House Correspondents' Dinner. I think that's really like, "Oh, that's right," you know, all that stuff is going on.

[Sources: David Litt’s NYT Op-Ed and a Charlie Rose transcript featuring an interview with David Litt, Jon Favreau, and Jon Lovett.]

More than ever, it seems like humor is essential to get people’s attention. David Litt closed out his Op-Ed with this thought, “But I do think that presidential comedy has played a role in this chapter in American history. The bully pulpit has splintered. It’s become harder than ever to get people’s attention. And the White House has recognized what class clowns have known all along. Being funny helps.”

It seems unlikely that President Trump will have President Obama’s natural comedic talent or a command of what is within the bounds of the Benign Violation Theory for the American public. Who can forget his attempt at a humorous speech at the Al Smith Charity Dinner prior to his election. The boos were directed at him.