So, Bill Clinton walks into a bar with a parrot on his shoulder. Bartender says, “Does he talk?”
Parrot says, “Not for less than 500 grand.”
That’s an old-fashioned political joke — old-fashioned as in the 1990s. It takes a recognizable slice of truth, gives it an unexpected twist and out comes a little laugh that leaves no mark.
Today’s American political humor is drastically different, reflecting a drastically different country than the one late-night legend Johnny Carson bid farewell to 27 years ago this month.
The hosts of today’s late-night shows — Jimmy Fallon and the lesser-rated Seth Meyers on NBC, Stephen Colbert on CBS, who competes for the top spot, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, who trails, and Conan O’Brien on TBS — instead compete for meanest monologues.
Such shows have always made fun of Republicans, suggesting they were dumb like actor Ronald Reagan, stumbling like Gerald Ford or incapable of speaking clearly like George W. Bush.
Donald Trump is an adopted Republican, so he’s the butt of jokes about being stupid, too.
“The president hosted trick-or-treaters at the White House,” Fallon noted. “The kids were excited ‘cause they met the president. Trump was excited ‘cause he thought he met Captain America.”
But these days, late-night audiences still tuning in to such network fare are also fed a steady diet of just plain mean jokes, even crude ones, aimed less for laughs than to feed the anger of people still embittered by Trump’s shocking 2016 election upset.
There’s little good-natured in these performances as comedians play to the angry side that dislikes, even detests, the president.
“President Trump’s childhood home in Queens, New York, is currently on sale for almost $3 million,” Meyers said on Feb. 6. “And it still has all the original teeth marks on the lead-painted window sills.”
Or Meyers in December: “According to a new poll, President Trump’s approval rating has risen to 46 percent. Though the only question on the poll was: ‘Would you rather have President Trump or scabies?’”
Or this hilarious Meyers line: “The lawyer for adult film star Stormy Daniels said in a new interview that Daniels can describe President Trump’s ‘genitalia in great detail.’ Though frankly, I’d be a lot more surprised if Melania can.”
The Trumps’ marriage is a frequent target. Fallon observed a sinkhole appeared on White House property: “But after grounds crew investigated, they realized it was just another one of Melania’s escape tunnels.”
“I wanna say happy birthday to First Lady Melania Trump,” he added last month. “Yep. Melania Trump made a wish, blew out her candles, opened her eyes and said, ‘Oh, crap! He’s still here.’”
Last summer, Fallon quoted Trump in a speech saying, “‘Sometimes you have to toot your own horn because nobody else is going to do it.’ Cause the last time someone else tooted Trump’s horn, it cost him $130,000.”
The comedian at last year’s White House Correspondents Dinner, Michelle Wolf, was so unfunny and insulting to Trump press secretary Sarah Sanders, the organization this year hired a historian instead to speak.
To be sure, late-night hosts make jokes about other politicians. But they’re notably gentler than the Trump lines.
For instance, Kimmel made fun of South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s name the other night: “He would be our first openly gay president and our first President Pete. Which sounds like a movie where Kevin James winds up in the White House, right?”
O’Brien chimed in facetiously on a Trump tweet about the Notre Dame Cathedral fire: “We’re all very grateful to the president for suggesting that in the case of fire, water and acting quickly might be the right idea.”
Bob Hope and Carson made a living off political jokes that got laughs without applause signs. During one of his many USO trips to visit troops in Vietnam during war protests, Hope reassured them: “The country is behind you 50 percent.”
Carson once noted, “There’s a power struggle going on between President Reagan’s advisers. Moe and Curly are out. Larry is still in.”
A different time. A different pop culture. And these “entertainers” are free to mock whomever they please, as long as advertisers are willing to pay.
Laughter can be a great cleanser and a unifying force. Some politicians have used self-deprecation as a powerful tool.
But as we head into another divisive election season, I can’t help thinking the work products of the current crop of so-called comics are doing exactly the opposite.