Understanding Romney Humor: “I’m Also Unemployed”

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A few days before the 2010 midterm elections, Mitt Romney opened with this joke at a GOP event in New Hampshire: “It’s nice to be so warmly recognized. I’m not always recognized where I go by the way. The other day I made a phone call. I was trying to dial for dollars, trying to help some of our friends around the country. I called a big executive’s office. His assistant answered the phone. I said, ‘I’m Mitt Romney, can I talk to’ what-his-name-was. And she said, ‘What’s the name of your company?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’m currently unemployed.’ “

There was laughter all around. Today, in Florida, Romney repeated the joke, while introducing himself to a group of unemployed workers. “I should tell my story,” he said. “I’m also unemployed.” Again, people laughed. But under the pressure cooker of a presidential campaign, the reaction since then has been different.

The New York Times’ Jeff Zeleny posted the comment at 11:55 a.m. By 12:55, the Democratic National Committee had already sent out an indignant press release. “Being unemployed, Mr. Romney, is not a joke – not to my constituents in Florida or to millions of Americans across the country,” pounced DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, who hails from Florida. “Folks in my home state and across the country, who are struggling every day to make ends meet, do not need someone making light of their situation.  Equating his run for the presidency with the difficulties of these honest hard-working Americans is shocking and is a reflection of his inability to comprehend the struggles of the American people.”

Oh, the outrage. The outrage. The phony, phony outrage. As Zeleny’s report makes clear, the unemployed workers who heard Romney’s joke were not offended. They got it. Romney, a rich guy, was making fun of himself, not people out of work. But he wasn’t speaking in a comedy club. He was speaking in a high stakes campaign. And as the campaign progresses, I would bet that Romney’s sense of humor becomes an issue.

In private, Romney’s aides say he is a very funny guy, who loves to tell jokes. In public, Romney tends to be a very hokey guy, who loves telling jokes. Dana Milbank, the Washington press corps’ resident funny man, recently wrote an entire story about Romney telling jokes in New Hampshire. He called the story, “A day of awkwardness with Mitt Romney.”

Among the zingers:

1. “I saw the young man over there with eggs Benedict, with hollandaise sauce. And I was going to suggest to you that you serve your eggs with hollandaise sauce in hubcaps. Because there’s no plates like chrome for the hollandaise.”

2. “Oh, this is the Hooters equivalent.” (When he noticed no guy waitresses at a diner.)

3. “Okay, so what do you do about mosquito control? . . . This has been a mosquito-infested year with all the moisture. They flew away with my dog.”

He also pretended to have his butt pinched by someone who was taking a picture with him. Then he said, “Oh my goodness gracious!. . . . Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.”

These sort of jokes are cute, in their way, the sort of earnest, simple, joyful humor that you would expect from Ward Cleaver. But the modern media culture is far more Richard Pryor than Henny Youngman, more Stephen Colbert than Bob Hope. Sometimes the discordance between Romney’s good-natured, earnest delivery and his environment is so striking that one can’t help but cringe. To wit:

In the end, all of this will make for a great Saturday Night Live sketch. Romney can be played by Michael Scott from The Office. But how does it play out in the campaign? Well one way is that his humor can be misconstrued by his foes to mean something that it doesn’t. Another way is that Romney might appear to be trying too hard on the trail, which can feed the narrative that he is a phony.

But the bad jokes are not all downside. There is a clear advantage to not holding back with the humor. This corny guy who tells bad jokes is, after all, who Romney actually is. He tried to pretend to be otherwise in 2008 and it didn’t work. Over time, the American people are sure to get used to his bad jokes, and they will come to understand that this he is someone who thinks its funny to make egg-inspired puns with “home” and “chrome.” Maybe it’s awkward, but at least it helps to dismiss the notion that their is no core to the Romney political enterprise.

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