By Lynn Ashby 4 July 2011
When impersonator Reggie Brown, who looks and sounds a lot like President Obama, told his audience, “February is my favorite month because it’s Black History Month. Michelle, she celebrates the whole month, and I celebrate half.” The crowd loved it. “We need to build tunnels and bridges,” he went on. “That way people will have something to live in or something to jump off of.” Cheers, laughter, applause.
But when Brown crossed the aisle, and some say crossed the line, things got touchy. “The economy is floundering, clinging to life. Just like Newt Gingrich’s campaign.” Dead silence except for a few boos. Brown poked fun at Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney, a Mormon, mentioning, “He might make a great president, along with the first lady, the second lady, the third lady.” The performer got the hook. The music rose, his microphone was turned off, then a gentleman walked up beside Brown and escorted him off the stage.
What happened? Brown was in New Orleans speaking to the Republican Leadership Committee, clearly a humorless bunch. Impersonating Obama by ridiculing the President’s problems, non-solutions and mixed race were terribly funny to the GOP stalwarts, but when the comedian turned on conservatives, the crowd bristled.
Brown then re-learned a basic rule of stand-up comedy: Democrats will laugh at Republicans and Republicans will laugh at Democrats. Democrats will actually laugh at themselves, but Republicans will never, ever laugh at themselves or fellow GOPers. It’s a twist on Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment (which was actually coined by then-California Republican Party Chairman Gaylord Parkinson): Never speak ill of a fellow Republican, to which should be added: And never let anyone else do it, either.
I can sympathize with Brown. When I was reporting on the 1988 GOP national convention in – oddly enough – New Orleans, my family joined me. One of my children sat at a luncheon table with several Houston women who, upon discovering he was my son, turned on him with wrath because I had poked fun at their party. A class act.
Politics has always been a basis of humor. The Greeks and Romans had some, as did Shakespeare, although the Bard’s subtle nuances are lost on today’s SpongeBob fans. Mark Twain and Will Rogers became quite wealthy with pithy, and mostly gentle, comments on their politicos. Although they could be mean: Twain: “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” Rogers: “Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.”
Later came Art Buchwald and William Buckley who could be hilarious, but in a civilized way. Today we have the late-night comedians (Leno, Letterman, etc.) who generally play both sides of the political street. “Comedy Central” and “The Colbert Report” are left-leaning shows, which liberals find humorous. Rachel Maddow slings caustic shots at the GOP, but always has a smile on her face.
Then we have Sean Hannity on the right and Keith Olbermann on the left. Both have the same angry, divisiveness, us-against-them shtick. And their humor is based on the same theme: something terrible happened to the other side. “I’ll be back with some bad economic news, hehehe.” That was a recent Hannity statement. Olbermann wallows in the Republicans’ problems. Neither laughs with a joyous ha-ha-ha. No, it’s more of a low-toned, evil hehehe. Their delight is beyond schadenfreude. It all depends on whether we are laughing WITH or laughing AT. There’s a huge difference.
For our pols, humor is complicated. We don’t like them too funny – it borders on being a lightweight. Al Franken was a professional comedian until he became a senator. He’s no longer a comedian. But we have always liked self-deprecating humor from them. Abraham Lincoln, aware that he wasn’t too handsome, said about his political opponents’ charges: “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?”
Sen. John Tower used to tell this joke on himself. He was going to make a speech in a little East Texas town. Everyone closed down their business and went to the town square for Tower’s speech. One merchant was racing to the event when he noticed that Billy Bob, the tailor, was still in his shop, sewing along. The merchant shouted: “Close your shop. Senator Tower is coming to town!”
Billy Bob thought for a moment and said, “You don’t think he’d rob me in broad daylight, do you?”
As for Reggie Brown, he owns the best presidential impersonation since Steve Bridges’ take on George W. Bush. Together at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, Bush & Bridges broke up the crowd. Rich Little still does Richard Nixon, who’s been dead for 17 years. What’s next, Little? “Now, I’d like to do my impression of Thomas Jefferson eating oatmeal.” But there’s a down side to a one-pony show: Vaughn Meader had a terrific impersonation of JFK. The day Kennedy was shot, Meader told his wife, “My career just died, too.” It did.
Reggie Brown has to be careful because he performs before both parties, so he diplomatically said he was pulled because his act may have been running long. The Republicans had told him to do 15-20 minutes. He was removed after 18 minutes and 15 seconds. (You can watch it on YouTube.) The GOP said he was making racial jokes, which they didn’t like. “I didn’t hear any boos on any of the racial jokes,” Brown said. “The president, like myself, shares a mixed background.”
Brown also said he always directs potential clients to his act on his web site which features his show – pretty much the same one, same jokes. GOP head honcho Charlie Davis told CNN: “We have zero tolerance for racially insensitive jokes.” Maybe for some political jokes, too. In any event, it is clear the GOP has just reinforced its deserved reputation as having no sense of humor. We must suspect my e-mails will simply prove the point.
Ashby ha-ha-has at email@example.com