“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”
This adage may be the reason that President Obama and Mitt Romney will avoid using humor during their upcoming presidential debates. But that’s a mistake.
Past presidential candidates have used comedy in the debates, and guess what, they won the election. Obviously that’s not the only reason they won, but you can’t deny it helped them.
Here’s something you don’t need a high-priced, inside the Washington beltway political consultant to tell you: When you make people laugh, they tend to like you more. It creates a bond with people because your words have caused them to have a visceral reaction: Laughter.
I’m not saying Romney or Obama should come out with series of zingers or one-liners. However, a well-written and well-delivered joke is potentially more valuable in increasing your likability than a $100 million dollar donation from Sheldon Adelson to your Super PAC. (Mitt Romney: I hope you’re reading this!)
But keep in mind, all laughs are not equal in the world of presidential debates. A presidential candidate telling a funny joke at an appropriate time in the debate will help him show his human, playful side.
Contrast this with comedy caused when a candidate does something awkward or makes a gaffe at the debate. Those don’t help. Think Al Gore sighing loudly in his first debate with George W. Bush in 2000– funny for us, deadly for him. And then there was George W. H. Bush obviously looking at his watch twice during one of the 1992 debates as if he had somewhere more important to be.
The use of comedy during the debate also has another potential upside. Not only can comedy ingratiate you with voters, when wielded correctly, it can be a formidable weapon. A good joke can show the absurdity of your opponent’s argument. If America is laughing with you and at your opponent, that’s a good thing for your campaign.
The most famous example of a presidential candidate deftly using a debate joke was Ronald Reagan in 1984. Reagan, who was 73 years old at the time, was the oldest president to ever seek a second term. Some viewed his age as a liability.
But Reagan, when asked by a journalist during the debate if his age would be a problem, delivered this classic line: “I want you to know also 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.”
The crowd erupted in laughter. Even his opponent Walter Mondale laughed. That effectively closed the door on that issue.
Another effective use of comedy during a debate was in 2000 by George W. Bush. (Ironic isn’t it, because Bush would later become a walking punch line.) Bush had already run ads attacking his opponent Al Gore for his alleged claim that he had invented the Internet. (Gore’s exact quote had been: "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.")
During one presidential debate, Gore gave one of his patented, detailed laden answers to a question which included numerous mathematical figures. Bush, instead of taking on the substance of the argument, responded using humor: ”I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator as well. It's fuzzy math."
That was a great line for two reason: One, it was funny. Two, it furthered the narrative Bush was creating of Gore that he was arrogant. The result was America was laughing at Al Gore plus they were reminded about his alleged claim that he invented the Internet.
Although as a warning to both Obama and Romney, a poorly delivered joke can hurt you. It will make you look more awkward, less relatable, and will be fodder for every late night TV comedy show out there. You better make sure you have a good comedy writer working with you and practice delivering the joke before the debate. (Just throwing this out there, but I will make myself available to either Obama or Romney if you need a comedy coach for an almost reasonable sum of money.)
So President Obama and Mitt Romney, as you prepare for the upcoming debates by cramming facts and figures into your tired brains, save some time to learn one or two jokes. I can assure you that a detailed, nuanced answer to a policy question will not be as memorable, nor move people as much, as one really good joke.