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Walking a fine punch line

Obama is a tricky target for comedy, but in Chicago, performers are happy to poke fun at one of their own.

July 21, 2008|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — Comedians and satirists here have learned what their peers across the country are finding out about making fun of Barack Obama.

Some things are fair game: his age, his lanky physique, his Ivy-League-meets-street-slang vernacular, even his cautious nature.

And some things simply aren't. Obama, they've found, is not quite the easy target that his presumptive GOP opponent, 71-year-old Arizona Sen. John McCain, is.

In Chicago, home of the venerable Second City comedy troupe, few people are regarded as immune to social satire, and since Obama leaped into the national spotlight with his keynote address at the Democrats' 2004 national convention, the state's junior senator and city's favorite adopted son has become a commonplace subject at comedy clubs across the city.

Second City has produced three highly successful shows this year in Chicago that skewer Obama, including "Between Barack and a Hard Place," which joked about his chameleonic ability to identify with blacks, whites, gays, Latinos and even soccer moms.

The show, which closed this spring, was followed by "No Country for Old White Men" and "Campaign Supernova!, or How Many Democrats Does It Take to Lose an Election."

Both take pokes at Obama, but during a Friday performance of "Campaign Supernova," the actors teased the candidate with a softer touch:

One voter confides that he's voting for the most Irish-sounding candidate.


"No! O'Bama!" replied the actor, sending the mostly white audience into gales of laughter.

South Side Chicago comedians, such as impressionist Reggie Reg, have built a following spoofing Obama. And other local stand-up performers say they routinely take shots at him.

"He's the Will Smith of politics -- the single most boring white person in the United States," quipped Aaron Freeman, a Chicago native and African American comedian. "I've been making these jokes for two years. . . . He's one of ours, so of course we're going to bash him. What none of us can figure out is why no one else seems to be willing to do the same."

Sometimes, though, a punch line falls flat.

Ray Hanania, a Palestinian comedian and former local journalist, decided to dip a toe into the issue of race and Obama at a show this year: "I don't understand Barack Obama's hesitation at naming Hillary as his running mate. Isn't that every black man's dream, to have a white woman at their side?"

Hanania has cut the joke from his act. "You could tell people wanted to laugh, but they didn't or couldn't let themselves. Those are the kind of jokes people are afraid of right now. . . . The problem is it's too easy to confuse a legitimate joke with the ugly racism that's being said about him out there."

That was the case for New Yorker magazine Editor David Remnick and illustrator Barry Blitt, who were criticized for a cover illustration showing Obama and his wife, Michelle, as fist-bumping terrorists burning a flag in the Oval Office.

In the wake of that brouhaha, TV's late-night hosts and their writers complained that race had made Obama a difficult subject for white hosts to address, and for a predominantly white audience to hear. Instead, their routines tend to focus more on a politically correct target: Obama's older, and white, rival, McCain.

Such hesitancy makes sense because "the last forbidden wall in American comedy is race and ethnicity. There are cultural critics who say 'All in the Family' couldn't get on the air today," said Dan Schnur, a political communications lecturer at USC, and communications director for McCain during his 2000 presidential bid.

But, Schnur noted, Chicago comics are likely willing to be more aggressive in their satire toward Obama because he is seen as a blend of A-list celebrity and local guy -- someone to be both proud of and poked at.

"Familiarity breeds contempt, but it also breeds comedy," Schnur said. "It's the feeling of 'I can tell jokes about my own family, but nobody else better try.' "

Comics here acknowledge that some subjects are too serious for most people to ever find amusing. There are very few jokes even today about the Sept. 11 attacks and the Oklahoma City bombing.

Issues of race, particularly regarding a prominent African American presidential candidate or the concept of someone threatening his life, are equally difficult to broach on a comedy stage, said Andrew Alexander, executive producer for Second City.

"We knew we had to talk about [race]," Alexander said. "The question is how."

The show's staff wrote a sketch featuring Hillary Rodham Clinton trying to hire a hit man to kill her rival. Her effort is thwarted when the murderer refuses to take the job because he is bisexual, and in love with Obama.

The actress playing Clinton says: "Your precious boyfriend isn't perfect, OK? He's a smoker. He's done coke. He doesn't have enough experience."

"I know all of that," the hit man replies. "But I don't care. Haven't you ever loved a man so much you could ignore his faults?"

Alexander said: "By the time Hillary brought up the issue of assassination with the anniversary of Robert Kennedy's, we'd been running with this for months. It's all about finding the intelligent way to talk about the truth, and there is a reality and a truth in that issue. It's the elephant in the room."

"Between Barack and a Hard Place" was such a hit, it drew the attention of -- and giggles from -- the Obamas themselves: An abbreviated version of the show was used as a campaign fundraiser.

"Michelle came back later to see the full show," said Ithamar Enriquez, one of the show's writers and a Second City Mainstage actor.

"She loved it."


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