New Jersey Press Association Legislative Correspondents Club Show
A new viral video starring New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker (a potential future rival of Christie's) helps underscore the value for politicians in being able to navigate new media and contemporary culture.
The video, released on Tuesday night by Christie's office, shows Booker, the Democratic mayor popularized for his antics of shoveling snow or rushing into a burning building to save a neighbor, running to the rescue every time the Republican governor encounters a mishap. But when Booker is facetiously shown talking to Mitt Romney about a spot on the Republican ticket, Christie intervenes.
The skit was produced for a legislative correspondents' dinner along the line of the White House Correspondents' Association gathering hosted every year in Washington and was quickly passed around.
Humor has always been a part of the modern political campaign -- think Richard Nixon's appearance during his run for president on the television show "Laugh-In." But humor's role has been augmented in the age of social media and viral videos; candidates and politicians, at a bare minimum, now try to show that they’re at least conversational in the language of pop culture and sufficiently self-effacing.
“The Christie video gets the No. 1 rule of political humor: It’s an incredibly powerful weapon, but in order to be able to wield it against others, you have to be willing to turn it on yourself first,” said Jeff Nussbaum, a partner at West Wing Writers, who’s worked on political humor for Democratic candidates and officeholders.
“I think that, more and more, people not only want their elected officials to have policy positions, but they also want these people to be relatable,” he said. “And humor is an incredibly good way for elected officials to show they can relate, laugh and, more importantly, laugh at themselves.”
Humor falls along the continuum of reliability, a trait on which every political candidate hopes to trade.
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That broader sense of cultural versatility explains why President Barack Obama drew wild cheers from the audience of ABC”s “The View” when he correctly named which of the Kardashian sisters had divorced her husband 72 days. And it’s why Obama, a few weeks earlier, chose to
participate in a “Slow-Jamming the News” skit on NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”
Sarah Palin’s 2008 appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” alongside parody-doppelganger Tina Fey, served many of the same purposes; it’s why Mitt Romney still might appear on the same show this fall.
Nussbaum suggested, too, that Obama’s use of humor has been most effective in deflecting his fiercest criticism, for instance, his jokes about the origin of his birth certificate in light of public scrutiny from Donald Trump.
But employing humor or trying to seem pop-culture savvy has its limits, and might not work the best for some candidates. It depends on the circumstances.
“When I first saw it, I asked myself, 'Hmm, I wonder if Mitt Romney should do something like that?'” said Republican ad man Fred Davis, who concluded that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee would be served better by a sober campaign emphasizing his competence versus Obama.
“I think most of Romney's attempts at humanizing himself have fallen a little flat,” Davis said. “Romney's path to victory is probably not being funnier than Obama on Letterman; his path to victory is being more competent than Obama.”
(“I’ll say this: I’m not eager to see Mitt Romney at an open mic night anytime soon,” Nussbaum said.)
The risk, though, always involves the humor hitting too close to home.
Some believe Al Gore’s frequent jokes about his stiffness as a candidate reinforced an existing public perception. And President George W. Bush’s jokes about being able to locate weapons of mass destruction in Iraq came against a backdrop of bloodshed in that war, which was heavily predicated on the purported existence of those weapons.
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But if Christie has serious designs on getting a vice presidential nomination, the video may have hurt those chances as much as helped. Christie’s video mentions -- twice -- his status as a favorite pick to round out Mitt Romney’s ticket, including the video’s biggest comedic payoff at the end.
“I think it maybe went one click too far in that direction, but I don’t think it crossed the more dangerous thresholds for humor,” Nussbaum said.
And Davis, whose ad firm has earned a reputation for its eyebrow-raising humor, said he far prefers to invoke laugh lines when going after other candidates.
“We're really big on humor. But where it plays the biggest role is in making an attack where that doesn’t blow back against the attacker,” he said. “Emotion works in advertising, and humor is a very powerful emotion.”