President Barack Obama will leave office later this month with nary a scratch on him from the comedy community.
There’s no iconic “Saturday Night Live” sketch that will haunt him for years. No comic meme will dog him as he transitions to his post-White House life.
In short, he got off easy.
That certainly wasn’t true for Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton or George W. Bush. Each felt the flames from hot-tempered comedians across the media landscape. The latter two presidents gave comedians almost too much content to handle.
Not Obama. What happened?
Here are five reasons why Obama spent eight years in the Oval Office without comedians scorching him as they did his predecessors.
Race 101: President Obama was the nation’s first black president. That initially thwarted plans to treat him like any other Commander in Chief. Could you mock Obama and avoid being labeled a racist? Many comics simply didn’t try. It wasn’t worth the risk in our politically correct age. That proved prophetic as conservatives were labeled “racist” for merely disagreeing with Obama’s policies.
Consider how current Democrats are already planning to roadblock President-Elect Donald Trump’s Supreme Court picks for context.
As time passed, our collective sensitivities surrounding Obama faded. Yet comedians mostly stuck to their Year One blueprint, either avoiding Obama gags or slinging harmless barbs at him. “The Tonight Show’s” Jimmy Fallon proved a rare, and winning, exception.
Black comics like Chris Rock could have made a difference. Had the humorist teed off on Obama it would have allowed his peers to do the same without appearing insensitive … or worse. Yet Rock was missing from the stand-up scene for Obama’s two terms.
The Tina Fey Fallout: Fey’s impression of Sarah Palin wasn’t just uncanny. It impacted the way we looked at the feisty former Governor. It also officially weaponized comedy, tarnishing her image as a political rebel. Suddenly, news reporters were quoting Fey as Palin as if Palin had said the very same thing. Remember “I can see Russia from my backyard” line popping up legitimate news reports? Fey said that on “Saturday Night Live.”
You can’t blame Fey. She did what any comic should do – she took on the powerful with humor. Her fellow comics likely saw the impact her impression had and realized their funny bits had bite in our media-saturated age.
Mock the president, and your gag could go viral. As a result, they may have opted out of any material that could truly damage Obama’s image.
Cheering Section: Some comedians not only avoided holding Obama accountable with their humor, a few actively cheered him on. There’s no better example than the recurring Obama’s Anger Translator sketch from Comedy Central’s funny “Key & Peele” show. The recurring segment took Obama’s side on the issues of the day, casting him as too calm and cool to really say what he thinks about his GOP enemies.
It was pure propaganda.
Just as bad? The “Between Two Ferns” sketch featuring Obama and Zach Galifianakis. The sketch attempted to shore up the rickety health care overhaul that looks to get gutted by President Trump.
Blame the Media: One of the biggest fake news items in recent weeks? That Obama’s presidency lacked a single scandal. On the surface that’s accurate. The media treated serious transgressions like wholesale ObamaCare lies, Benghazi, the Iranian deal and the IRS’s attack on conservatives as any other news story. Had a Republican president promised voters they could keep their health plan or sicced the IRS on liberal groups the media would have gone into a frenzy.
Comedians often take their cues from media narratives. No major Obama scandals? No scandals to incorporate into their acts. They could have followed shrewd conservatives like Ben Shapiro and Stephen Miller on Twitter to see beyond the imbalanced media narratives. They opted against that plan.
Pack Mentality: It’s an odd feeling to file a nasty, negative film review when every other critic is singing the movie in question’s praises. The same holds true for comedy. If 95 percent of comics are hammering the GOP and ignoring the Obama administration, it’s hard to justify material that flips the script on that meme.
The late night landscape went from “leaning left” to “hopelessly progressive” during Obama’s eight years in office.
The very notion that Fallon would treat “Tonight Show” guest Donald Trump like a human being became unthinkable.
That pack mentality only intensified during the last stages of Obama’s presidency. Everyone trained their comic fire on Trump, essentially tuning out Obama in his eighth and final year in office.