March 19th, 2009
11:56 AM ET

As funny as the times allow

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Michael Schulder
CNN Senior Executive Producer

Tonight, Barack Obama will appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Will President Obama be funny? "As funny as the times allow," said a White House official. How funny do these times allow one to be? We asked a similar question after 9/11. When can we laugh again? Following are some answers from Aristotle to Ackerman.

You can't get funnier, given the times, than New York Congressman Gary Ackerman. Read what he said yesterday at the congressional hearings on the insurance giant AIG. He's hilarious about the investment device that helped bring AIG and so much of the world economy to its knees - the credit default swap, based on collateral from subprime mortgages, which was pitched as a form of insurance.

Congressman Ackerman:

"There's a great company called I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. . At least they have the decency to tell you it's not butter."

Ackerman continues: "I mean, this is insurance without being insurance, because if they called it insurance, they'd have to have money to pay you off. But they don't have the money to pay you off. And they're calling it credit default swaps, because if they called it I Can't Believe It's Not Insurance...)... maybe nobody would buy it."

The laughter had just died down when Ackerman brought us back down to earth. "It's a funny joke I made up," said Congressman Ackerman. But "it's not funny, because all of us who are laughing are crying."


Aah – but that's exactly what makes Ackerman's joke so funny, according to Professor Lou Ruprecht, an expert on both laughing and crying. He teaches a popular class in ancient Greek tragedy and comedy at Georgia State University.

"First and foremost, we get it wrong when we separate tragedy and comedy," says Professor Ruprecht. "They're joined at the hip. You laugh about the same stuff you cry about." What stuff is that? "The things over which we have no control," answers Professor Ruprecht. Aristotle was clear about this. "Both tragedy and comedy play on reversals of fortune," says the professor. And our society is going through a huge reversal of fortune.

Comedy and tragedy have traveled together for more than 2,400 years. Professor Ruprecht describes how ancient Greece responded to the 30 year war, which began in 432 B.C. The people of Athens suffered horribly. And yet, Professor Ruprecht points out, for every one of those 30 years, despite the suffering, Athens held an annual comedy festival. “One character in the show would call out the names of prominent people in the audience and he would make fun of their leadership. This was a horribly destructive war that Athens ultimately lost." The comedy survived until the very end. The world’s first democrats felt keeping humor alive was a civic duty.


Some feel that keeping humor alive is a Biblical duty too.

I remember being surprised more than a decade ago by how much the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel made me laugh during his lectures at New York's 92nd Street Y. Speaking about the importance of humility in the stories of the Bible, he opens with a joke. I paraphrase. Two old religious men are discussing the value of humility. One says: "I'm the most humble person I know." The other says: "How can you compare your humility to mine."

As for the Biblical imperative to keep humor alive, Wiesel addresses this through the horror of how Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac. He calls Isaac "the first survivor." And yet, says Wiesel, think about the significance of naming the first survivor Isaac, Hebrew for "the laughing one." The comic commandment.


I grew up with a man whose life was dominated by the comic commandment. My father is a retired stand-up comedian named Bobby Shields. The tragedy of Parkinson's disease makes it impossible for him to shed fresh light on this story. But I remember, years ago, dabbling in stand-up myself, getting feedback from one of my father's comedian buddies. He told me my humor was too gentle. "Someone's gotta slip on the banana peel," he said.

As for President Obama on Leno, Professor Ruprecht advises: "It's important that he express a certain populist moral outrage. But that's not funny. For comedy to do its work well – it's gotta be mean," he says. "Comedy is meaner than tragedy. Comedy gives us a glimpse of all these things we're enslaved to – to all the things that are out of our control. The bigger the pain the bigger the punchline."

These times will provide many punchlines. Right now, I can't think of any.

Reporter's Note: Go here to find Professor Ruprecht's blog and find his new book here. My thanks to Professor Ruprecht's former student and current CNN Researcher Emma Lacey-Bordeaux for her insights.

soundoff (265 Responses)
  1. Rana Peake

    I'm sure the jobless Americans who were up late last night truly appreciate the President's sense of humor and his knack for finding time to do things outside of work - the 'people's work', that is. Honestly, I understand that everyone needs to take a break and relax. But does the President really need to advertise his ability to kick back and have a good laugh on a late night comedy show? I mean, we're in the midst of a crisis, right?

    Not funny.

    March 20, 2009 at 10:43 am |
  2. Lisa

    There is nothing wrong with laughter. We have elected a President that is able to connect with the people – at least the younger generation. And, his work in the white house has shown that he is capable to handle the tough decisions and STILL manage to spend time with family and other activities.

    So, if it’s Jay Leno, filling out brackets at the NCAA Tournament, playing basketball, bowling and cleaning up the mess Republicans left in the white house….bring it on Mr. President.

    March 20, 2009 at 10:09 am |
  3. James in California

    I think what the real problem is that with President Obama going on the Tonight Show is that the Right does not get a rebuttal his remarks. They do not want the fair use doctrine to be revisited so that both sides can be presented fairly. So they are now going to end up moaning and groaning that the liberal left media is not allowing them their equal time on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show.

    They are just mad that President Obama out smarted them and is ahead of the game they keep playing against him. President Obama just happens to be a president for all the people, not just some of the people as some past presidents have been.

    President Obama is willing to listen so you can’t ask more than that, than to have a president that is willing to listen, instead of ‘it is my way or the highway” from the past arrogance from the Right.

    Tomorrow they will have a field day on talk radio, so stay tuned.

    March 19, 2009 at 9:29 pm |
  4. Randy Black Cloud, Atigun Pass, AK

    Congress forgot to tax (at 90%) the $ 4 billion in TARP money they received from banks and other firms lobbying congress for bonus loopholes. Until corporate lobbying is eliminated, the interests of the American people are not represented.

    March 19, 2009 at 8:58 pm |
  5. mjr

    This is infuriating. I do not understand how during this current global economic crisis the POTUS has time to jet off to schmooze with Jay Leno. Stop campaigning for your persona Barack, it’s now time for you to work – and work hard.

    March 19, 2009 at 8:55 pm |
  6. TinaTinaTina

    I really do not care if Obama is funny tonight or not. I do care that the people who got bailouts owe taxes. I do care that Fannie and Freddie are planning on giving out retention bonuses and no one is talking about that. The amount giving out is twice as much as it was last year. 1 million each to 4 executives. where is all this money coming from? I cant pay for this. I do care that amex is stringing people up with 29.9% interest rates and reducing peoples credit...I do care that no one has a plan to stop the credit card companies. Whether Obama is funny or not is not an issue with me.

    March 19, 2009 at 8:47 pm |
  7. Nick

    What is he doing on a talkshow? Last time I checked, I dont really care about the mental health of the president. To get worn down is in the job description. Laughing is good but Americans are not all that happy right now. He is one of the most important men in the world and i dont care about his personal life because he is not a man as president but an icon that doesnt have time for this bs. Use this time to get more sleep so he can focas on tomarrows task. WTF are we paying his 400,000 a year for. I say kiss my ass Mr . President, or was that actor, whats your job description again.

    March 19, 2009 at 8:47 pm |
  8. Twobears

    I believe that the Country needs to take a deep breath, drop the inept attempts to second guess our new President and give him the space he needs to operate, there will be plenty of time to attack him and his cabinet if he screws things up. But what if he succeeds ???

    March 19, 2009 at 8:37 pm |
  9. Jerry Pecks

    Obama is awesome in every way. The Republicans created this terrible mess, and Obama and his administration are busting their a$$es to try and fix it. Those of you who have nothing better to do then sit around and trash talk the President need to reevaluate your allegiance to the United States.

    March 19, 2009 at 8:35 pm |
  10. James in California

    What better way to show the human side of a president? He is not the “chosen one”, “messiah” or a “Rock Star” as the right would have you believe. He is the first African American President and now the first setting president to go on Jay Leno making history.

    The problem with the right is they feel left out because Republican Presidents have been too busy taking care of those in the upper 1% getting them tax cuts to have time to care about the rest of us little people. President Obama is a down to earth president that at least shows he is human like the rest of us; he just has a different job to do.

    It seems to me those on the Right did not complain when Bush took his long working vacations in Crawford and where ever else wanted to fly off too to use his mega phone.
    But let a democrat president do it and you would think they committed a crime by not sitting in the Oval Office 24/7 instead of getting out and listening to what Americans have to say across this great land of our.

    How many town meetings did Bush do after he was selected? President Obama is chewing gum and walking at the same time by having town meetings in California and appearing on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

    The problem with those on the Right is they Obama envy because the only leader they have is talk radio host, Rush. Their Rush to failure leader of the GOP because they have no solutions only more of the same, we can’t do that, instead of yes we can do that mentality and that is the difference between sore losers and winners.

    March 19, 2009 at 8:34 pm |
  11. tbrander

    Can one of you big media types take a look at the legal expenses surrounding AIG and the PR dollars being spent by AIG both direct and through the legal group??? It is outrageous!! I don't want them spending my $$ on their PR>>>

    March 19, 2009 at 8:23 pm |
  12. Annie Kate

    Obama on Leno – I've never seen a sitting President appear on this sort of forum during their time in office. Obama must feel like he needs to talk to the American people in a less formal situation than giving a speech or a press conference. I'm curious as to what he will have to say so I guess I will watch Leno tonight. Obama is a game changer – and this is part of the game.....lets see how it works out before we condemn it.

    March 19, 2009 at 8:21 pm |
  13. john

    More importantly. What does Letterman have to say?

    March 19, 2009 at 8:09 pm |
  14. lidia crisan

    No it is not fanny credit cards cat our credit line with no reason we have 730 score , never been late with payments in 18 years and nobody cares about as we working hard to survive and the taxes in illinois will be increae by new gov. Pet Quin and we strogal to pay the bills.

    March 19, 2009 at 8:05 pm |
  15. john

    America is the strangest country ever invented.
    Giving up British values was the worst mistake ever.
    (1) Good for Obama to take time to "connect" via Leno (who watches that anyway?)
    (2) Deal with the gun crisis before more hundreds of your children are murdered for no reason. No one other than the Police and the Army should ever have a gun. Anyone who thinks otherwise is mentally ill
    (3) The President has little, to no power, to "deal" with the economy. The states and the Senate do. Obama (Mr or President? I am confused by US TV) can lead by example and tinker. So far he is AMAZINGLY effective. Americans OWE $4000 to each and every Chinese person. You are bankrupt. You spend more than you earn. Have done for years. Your country is owned by China and Arabia.
    (4) Peace is the only way forward. And ALL countries are artificial constructs

    Good luck. Be fair. Care for theose who need caring. And stop explioting each other.

    March 19, 2009 at 8:05 pm |
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