Fifty-eight years ago, John F. Kennedy, a rising-star senator from Massachusetts who was already leading the pack for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, stood in white tie and tails before the Washington establishment at the annual Gridiron Dinner and drew a piece of paper from his pocket. “I just received the following wire from my generous daddy,” he said. “ ‘Dear Jack, Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.’ ”
The crowd guffawed. The gag became a legendary example of something that is rare this election cycle: the self-deprecating joke.
To his detractors, Kennedy was a callow vessel for the ambitions of his wealthy and powerful father. So why would he tell a joke that copped to what so many thought to be his greatest liability? The Journal of Political Marketing isn’t usually the first place you should go looking for a good laugh. But an experiment published there last year does provide part of the answer: People like it when politicians make jokes at their own expense.
Researchers from East Carolina University had test subjects view a clip of David Letterman’s Top 10 list of “Ways the Country Would Be Different if Chris Christie Were President.” The 2011 segment contained what the researchers called “other-disparaging” humor; those outside of academia call it “fat jokes.” Among the items on Letterman’s list were “New state: Fatasschusetts”; “Instead of Iraq, we’d invade IHOP”; “Scandal when president is caught in Oval Office with Betty Crocker and Sara Lee.” After hearing the cracks at Christie’s expense, test subjects liked him less and said they were less likely to vote for him.
A different group of test subjects saw a different clip, this one of the New Jersey governor being interviewed by Letterman. Early in the conversation, Christie pulls a doughnut from his pocket and proceeds to eat it, saying that he “didn’t know this [interview] was going to be this long.” Viewers who saw this self-deprecating joke showed a greater likelihood of voting for Christie.
That’s because self-deprecating humor minimizes status distinctions. A study in another of America’s comic journals — the Leadership & Organization Development Journal — found that leaders who use such jokes win higher marks and are seen as more relatable to followers. Additional research published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research found that the very act of going on late-night television improved people’s opinions of a politician. Those shows in particular, and humor in general, prime viewers to look at political leaders as people and evaluate them on character traits rather than policy. As Dannagal Young, a professor of political communication at the University of Delaware (who performs in an improv comedy troupe), puts it, “If your goal is to appear human, authentic and relatable, it makes sense to deploy self-deprecation as a tactic.”
Some politicians get this intuitively and use it to good effect. Here’s Michael Dukakis at New York’s Al Smith Dinner in 1988: “I’ve … been told that I lack passion. But that doesn’t affect me one way or the other. Some people say I’m arrogant, but I know better than that.” In an appearance on “Saturday Night Live” days before the 2008 election, John McCain remarked, “I’m a true maverick — a Republican without money.” The joke headlined numerous articles the next day.
President Obama frequently mocks himself, including at the 2010 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, when he took double aim at his declining popularity and the birthers: “It’s been quite a year since I’ve spoken here last — lots of ups, lots of downs — except for my approval ratings, which have just gone down. … It doesn’t bother me. Besides, I happen to know that my approval ratings are still very high in the country of my birth.” And President Bill Clinton has credited a video in which he made fun of his lame-duck status, shown at the 2000 correspondents’ dinner, with helping him achieve the highest Gallup approval rating of any postwar president leaving office.
Yet there is astonishingly little self-deprecation among the candidates this election cycle. Instead, they have turned to humor that is, er, below the belt. Witness Donald Trump’s use of the word “schlonged” and Marco Rubio’s suggestion that Trump’s “small hands” signify another characteristic.
The tone has changed with the times, says Mark Katz, the author of a memoir about writing humor for President Clinton: “Self-deprecation is the voice of candor and a signifier of intellectual honesty. This electorate is not in the market for self-awareness or intellectual honesty. It’s not even in the market for mental stability.”
Landon Parvin, who has written some of the most memorable Republican laugh lines of the past several decades, offers another explanation. “The candidates have gone for insult humor. They have taken the Don Rickles route, except that audiences knew Rickles liked his targets, and he often delivered his lines with a smile. Insult humor is the easiest to do and the surest way to get on the news. But it doesn’t help build the candidate’s larger persona.”
On Super Tuesday, Trump made a similar observation about Rubio’s small-hands joke, saying Rubio had “decided to go Don Rickles.” But Trump added a particularly Trumpian twist, clarifying that “Don Rickles has a lot more talent.”
Hillary Clinton and Rubio have attempted to laugh at themselves. Clinton appeared as a bartender on “Saturday Night Live,” describing herself as “just an ordinary citizen who believes the Keystone Pipeline will destroy our environment”; Rubio has had a little fun after his well-publicized post-State of the Union hydration challenges in 2013, tweeting pictures of water bottles and doing water-bottle bumps with world leaders. (Rubio could stand to joke a bit at the next debate about his reputation as robotic: “Despite what Chris Christie and Donald Trump would have you believe, this is not WD-40.”)
One not-yet-published analysis of humor from four of the candidates (Clinton, Rubio, Trump and Bernie Sanders) in media interviews between Dec. 1, 2015, and March 1, 2016, conducted by the University of Delaware’s Young and graduate student Johanna Lukk, showed that Rubio and Clinton engage more often in self-deprecating humor. Sanders and Trump were the least likely to make fun of themselves. Sanders, for one, struggles not to seem relatable but to seem like a plausible president, and self-deprecation doesn’t help in his effort to elevate himself.
Trump was vastly more likely to engage in “other-deprecating humor” — in nine interviews, he made 18 jokes at someone else’s expense. (This does not include insults that were not delivered in a humorous way, a number I assume was too high to count.)
But Trump’s lack of self-deprecation doesn’t particularly hurt him with his fans. According to Young, “His entire persona is about authority, status and hierarchy.” Self-deprecation would run the risk of diminishing that. That’s why Trump’s humor is based on self-aggrandizement, such as when he interviewed himself” in a mirror on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” Sample joke: “Me interviewing me, that’s what I call a great idea!”
It’s a shame that insult humor has governed this election, because, unlike self-deprecation, it often diminishes the deliverer as much as the target. Lost in the volley of abuse is that perhaps the most effective one-liner in political history is one that got its victim to laugh, on camera, in front of millions. When President Ronald Reagan was asked during a 1984 debate if, at 73, he had the energy to continue to do the job — his challenger, Walter Mondale, had suggested he didn’t — he responded: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Mondale would later say that he may have laughed but he was also crying, because by neutralizing his most effective attack, that line effectively ended his campaign.
In the end, Mondale laughed. But Reagan laughed last. For anyone seeking the presidency, there’s a lesson in that.
Jeff Nussbaum is a partner in the speechwriting and strategy firm West Wing Writers and a co-founder of the Humor Cabinet. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.