Comedy as a campaign tool

Stevie Ray
Stand-up comedian and corporate trainer Stevie Ray says a presidential candidate who is comfortable with comedy will appeal more to voters
MPR photo/Chris Roberts

As founder of his own improv company, Stevie Ray has thought a lot about comedy.

One of Ray's basic principles is that laughter is a form of social agreement. When a politician, in this case a presidential candidate, can make people laugh, it can influence voters.

He points to a cardinal rule of advertisering: People move more quickly away from pain than they do toward pleasure. Ray says it's true in politics too.

"If we don't feel good about a candidate, we move away from them, even if they're right," he said. "And if a candidate has a great sense of humor, we trust them. We think they're right. And we don't really have to listen to too many details. Once we laugh with somebody, we believe them."

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Reagan, just before the shooting
President Ronald Reagan waves to the crowd outside the Washington Hilton Hotel just moments before he was shot in an assassination attempt on March 30, 1981.
Photo Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Ronald Reagan is Ray's model president when it comes to using humor. He said Reagan employed his gentle, folksy wit to diffuse tense situations and deflect criticism, like the phrase he came up with when he was shot. Here's Ray's impression.

"Honey, I forgot to duck."

Or the slogan he used to diminish his opponent Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential debates: "There you go again."

And when Reagan was asked about his age in one of those debates, his response seemed to turn the tide in his favor.

Reagan: "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

"Imagine if he had said, 'Well hey, he's younger, and he doesn't have as much experience,' we would have thought 'Well he just trying to dig himself out of a debate hole,' " Ray said. "Instead it's, 'he's so clever we have to believe him.' "

Ray says humor has been in relatively short supply in this year's presidential race. He thinks that's deliberate on the part of the candidates' handlers.

Democratic presidential candidates debate
Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton participate in their debate hosted by ABC in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, April 16, 2008.

"I think they've discovered that these candidates are not really that adept at using humor, so they're trying to keep them away from it," he said.

Not that the campaign has been completely devoid of humor. Ray thinks the candidate who's used it most effectively is the one who's the most comfortable with it.

Barack Obama: "I was laughing when we had the debate a couple days ago..."

"Barack Obama, he's the smoothest so far, at using humor," Ray said.

Obama: "People were asked what's your biggest weakness? So I thought, cause I'm like an ordinary person. I thought they meant what's your biggest weakness?"

"When you've got a good witty comeback, a nice verbal repartee, people see that as smart," Ray said.

Obama: "So they other two, they say 'well my biggest weakness is I'm just too passionate about helping poor people. I am just too impatient to bring about change in America. If I had gone last I would have known what the game was........"

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama speaks in Philadelphia Tuesday, where he spoke about race and politics in America.

"He could definitely use more humor because he's good at it, and it is effective," Ray said.

SNL: "And now an editorial response from Senator Hillary Clinton"

"Hillary's an interesting study when it comes to humor because she has attempted more than the other candidates in a very planned way, and to some success," Ray said.

Clinton: "But I still enjoyed that sketch a great deal, because I simple adore Amy's impression of me...."

"When she appeared on Saturday Night Live and was visibly supportive of being spoofed," he said. "She was spoofing herself next to the person who's imitating her, it really showed her as able to take a joke, able to make fun of herself, not take herself too seriously, which is her major issue," he said

Ray reserves his harshest criticism for Republican nominee John McCain.

"John McCain uses the wrong target, repeatedly," he said.

Such as when McCain fielded a question about his age and health from a teenager at a town hall meeting.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain
Republican presidential candidate John McCain, delivers remarks at Episcopal High School, where he graduated in 1954, to a crowd mostly of students, on April 01, 2008 in Alexandria, Virginia

McCain: "Every campaign I've ever been in in my life I've out-campaigned all of my opponents, and I'm confident I will. And thanks for the question you little jerk."

McCain got himself in trouble at another event when he was asked how he would respond to Iran if elected.

McCain: "That old Beach Boys song 'Bomb Iran.' Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb......"

"Everybody got incensed by that of course, and he refused to apologize for it," Ray said. "He said 'get a life, I can't believe you're even concerned about this.' Well now you show yourself as an insensitive oaf.

"On another talk show he said 'I brought you some gifts,' " Ray said. " " 'Some I.E.Ds. Improvised explosive devices. What size do you want?' And everybody thought, 'are you kidding me? You're making fun of the very device that is the bane of our existence in the military, and is killing our young men and women.' And he then refused to apologize. Well we used a lot of dark humor in the military to get through rough times.' "

So what would Ray tell McCain about future attempts at humor if he was a trusted advisor? It's more of a warning.

"John McCain should never try it again," he said.

Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton
Democratic presidential hopeful New York Sen Hillary Rodham Clinton celebrates at her primary night election party on April 22, 2008 at the Park Hyatt Philadelphia at the Bellevue in Philadelphia, PA.

Ray's advice for Hillary Clinton is similar to what other pundits have urged her to do, which is to open up, to make herself a little more vulnerable.

"Her humor has a shield in front of it, he said. "So she should really let her guard down a bit more and show us the real Hillary."

As for Barack Obama, Ray says keep doing what you're doing, just do more of it. In Ray's opinion Obama strikes the right balance when he's tries to be funny.

"He's not a comedian type guy," he said. "He shows he's a statesman, who has a great command of humor."

Ray says if Obama flashed his sense of humor more often, it might change the perception of him as too aloof and academic.