Is It Really Too Hard for Comedians to Joke About Joe Biden?
Comedy requires skepticism, and we're not seeing that.
There’s a difference between saying something can’t be done and recognizing that you can’t do it. For instance, I can’t run a marathon—at least not without some profound lifestyle changes. But that doesn’t mean marathons can’t be run. Happens all the time, just not by me.
Likewise, when you hear people say it’s impossible to make fun of Joe Biden, what they’re really saying is that they can’t (or won’t) do it, or that they don’t want anyone else to try.
Until recently, people mocked “ol’ Joe” routinely, including yours truly. In the Senate, an institution famous for its long-winded blowhards, Sen. Biden stood out from the crowd. His mouth was like a car with iffy brakes and a detached steering wheel. He’d start asking a question, and 15 minutes later he’d be in a treetop wondering how he got there. He abused the word “literally” so much, if there was a lexicological equivalent of child services, it would revoke custody.
The satirical website The Onion paid the rent mocking Biden. I liked its 2010 story “Biden Receives Lifetime Ban from Dave and Busters,” but its 2009 exposé “Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am In White House Driveway” went so viral that some folks at Fark.com tried to raise money to actually buy him a Trans Am. (Ethics rules precluded it.)
When Biden told CBS’s Katie Couric in 2008 that FDR went on TV to reassure the public after the 1929 stock market crash, people had fun at his expense, given that (a) FDR wasn’t president in 1929, and (b) TV wasn’t really a thing in 1929.
Things, including Biden, have changed. He isn’t nearly as loquacious as he once was. His hair plugs—a source of great ridicule back in the day—have settled in. He’s older, mellower, more grandfatherly and, I will be the first to concede, more likable.
Perhaps most importantly, after four years of a Donald Trump presidency, a boring old guy in the Oval Office is very reassuring to a lot of people.
So it’s not surprising that journalists and comedians alike have taken to claiming Biden is unmockable. Author Richard Zoglin writes in the Washington Post that, so far, Biden has proved “impregnable” to the impressionists and comedy writers at Saturday Night Live. New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney recently noted: “It’s hard to parody Biden. He’s not polarizing and people tend to find him likable. His ticks aren’t that interesting.”
There’s some truth here. Moreover, Biden hasn’t been president long enough for his caricaturable vulnerabilities to emerge, and the White House is in no rush to change that, which helps explain why he hasn’t held a press conference yet. His conspicuous senior moments—he recently forgot the name of his own secretary of defense—could be caricatured, and some try, but most efforts seem too desperately partisan and just a little too cruel.
Even the right-wing marketplace proves the point. At CPAC this year, a MAGA merchandise vendor told the Washington Post, “I can’t give the Biden stuff away.” This also helps explain why Republicans would rather focus on culture-war spats over Dr. Seuss than confront Biden directly.
Still, it’s worth noting we’ve seen this kind of thing before. Jim Downey, a longtime political comedy specialist at SNL, famously said in 2014 that President Obama was impregnable too. “It’s like being a rock climber looking up at a thousand-foot-high face of solid obsidian, polished and oiled,” Downey said. “There’s not a single thing to grab onto—certainly not a flaw or hook that you can caricature.”
Maya Rudolph of SNL, tasked with playing Vice President Kamala Harris, said in October that it was her “civic duty” to get the Biden-Harris ticket elected: “I gotta get there and do whatever I need to do to make sure that she wins this election, and also that I do a good job.” More recently, after winning an Emmy for her portrayal, Rudolph said of Harris, “I just wanna do her proud.” Not exactly a Menckenesque sentiment.
Journalism and comedy aren’t the same thing, but they do overlap. Both require skepticism about the way things are, about people in power, about the binding power of conventional wisdom. One reason people voted for Trump in the first place was the perception that our self-appointed cultural superiors had such an obvious double standard when it came to who deserved mockery—and who didn’t. You’d think the people most tormented by Trump’s presidency would have learned some lessons from that.