John Kerry vs. Humor

So, John Kerry botched a joke on Monday. In a speech to some California college students, he said, “You know education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

Not surprisingly, reaction was swift, loud, negative, and omnipresent. Despite Kerry’s claim that the barb was aimed at the President, many were offended on behalf of our noble, selfless troops. Putting aside the commonly accepted absurdity that being in the military implies selflessness and nobility of purpose, the most obvious interpretation of the joke is that ‘you’ get stuck in Iraq as a grunt, signing up for military duty only because your lousy performance in school reduced the number of careers available to you to just the one.

It took me two full days to understand that the ‘you’ that gets stuck in Iraq is President Bush. He didn’t do well in school, see, and now he’s stuck in Iraq. That’s almost funny.

Allow me to make a suggestion regarding how to make the joke actually funny. The problem is that the intended interpretation and the most likely interpretation are different. The most obvious solution, then, would be to include some uniquely presidential clue to the identity of the ‘you’ that gets stuck in Iraq.

For example, Kerry could have said, “You know education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get your country stuck in Iraq.”

While this is certainly an improvement on Kerry’s weak effort, it is, perhaps, too subtle. A less subtle possibility: “You know education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you end up President of the United States and get your country stuck in Iraq.”

This makes obvious another, even better option, namely to leave Iraq out of it: “You know education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you end up President of the United States.”

This version has three important qualities: it’s funny (at least, it’s funnier than Kerry’s joke), its intended referent and the most likely referent to be assumed by the listener are the same (you’d have to be truly dense to fail to get who it’s about), and it does what Kerry said he was trying to do in the first place – take a jab at the President.

I know Iraq is ‘topical’, but it’s also a very loaded issue to bring up, especially at the end of an election campaign (granted, it’s only a midterm). Poking fun at the fact that the President cruised through an Ivy League ‘education’ never gets old, though.

As a final aside, I think I have shown that the old adage that ‘a joke always dies on the operating table’ is not necessarily true. If you start with a very unfunny joke, ineptly delivered, you may well be able to analyze your way to a something funny. Funnier, anyway.

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3 Comments

  1. Joshua
    Posted November 2, 2006 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    One point you leave out: jokes are also a lot funnier if the person making the jab is qualified to do so. Kerry, as it turns out, got worse grades at Yale than Bush. No one doubts that Bush cruised through Yale on his family’s connections – but Kerry’s not exactly Einstein himself. It’s a bit like Christopher Hitchens making “Jew jokes.”

  2. noahpoah
    Posted November 3, 2006 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    I had no idea Kerry performed worser than Bush in college. That’s pretty bad. He should have just made a Dick Cheney = Darth Vader joke or something then.

    On an unrelated note, given the very small number of people who comment on this blog, it’s kind of silly for me to require ‘word verification’ for my comments, isn’t it?

  3. Joshua
    Posted November 3, 2006 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    No way – require it. You have no idea how much spam it’s filtering. Spam doesn’t get tired, and it doesn’t go away.


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