Campaign Jokes Are Telling

If there’s truth in humor, what do late-night jokes tell us about the presidential campaign?

John McCain is old. Most jokes about him dwell on his age. None of the jokes are biting, however, and many are laugh-out-loud funny:

"Earlier today, John McCain released 1,200 pages of his medical records. Or, as his doctor calls it, Chapter One." — Conan O’Brien

"Cindy McCain sprained her wrist. Doctors say it’s nothing serious — she probably did it cutting John McCain’s meat into little tiny pieces." — Craig Ferguson

"Good news for John McCain — his poll numbers are up 4 percent, liver spots down 3 percent." — Jay Leno

Where jokes are concerned, there hasn’t been much interest in Democratic vice -presidential candidate Joe Biden, but that may change if he keeps making gaffes:

"Joe Biden put his foot in his mouth the other day. He told a crowd that Hillary is as qualified or more qualified that he is. Plus she still has her original hair." — Jay Leno

However, there’s tremendous energy surrounding Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Initially, the Palin jokes were nasty and targeted her political positions aggressively. Several jokes attacked Palin by way of her 17-year-old daughter, as reflected in this Conan O’Brien line:

"Vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has many views. She says she’s opposed to same-sex marriage. Yeah, Palin says everyone knows marriage isn’t for gay people; it’s for pregnant teenagers."

Other jokes tried to frame her as a good-looking ditz, a gun-toting nut job and a white-trash hick:

"The McCain people believe Americans will disregard her inexperience because they will fall in love with her story. She was a runner-up in the 1984 Miss Alaska Pageant, which may sound trite, but you try walking in high-heeled snow shoes." — Bill Maher

"I saw that they’re selling Sarah Palin action figures. Sad incident at Toys R Us today — a Sarah Palin doll shot My Little Pony." — Jimmy Kimmel

"We’re learning more about Sarah Palin. It turns out she and her entire family once had a chair-throwing brawl on ‘Jerry Springer.’" — David Letterman

Now that Palin has upended the election — notions of her as a ditzy religious-right radical are not sticking — the tenor of the Palin jokes appears to be changing. There appear to be fewer biting jokes — fewer in which she is the butt of the gags, as reflected in this line:

"Sources in North Korea say that dictator Kim Jong Il is very sick. He may have to shift power to one of his three sons. Still, there’s an out-of-the-box chance he’ll pick Sarah Palin." — Conan O’Brien

A recent New York Times report examined why comics are having trouble getting a comedic bead on Obama. Is it because he’s the new guy on the block and deserving of some slack? That he’s the first black presidential candidate? That some in the audience are so attached to him they don’t laugh at jokes about him? Or that he hasn’t yet slipped up badly enough to give comics a fat, juicy theme?

Whatever the cause, comics use Obama to set up jokes, but he’s hardly ever been the butt of them. Here’s a very funny example:

"Barack Obama gave a speech in Germany and 200,000 people showed up. There were so many Germans shouting and screaming that France surrendered just in case." — Craig Ferguson

Now that Obama’s fortunes have shifted — he’s no longer the front-runner and trails in various polls — the jokes appear to be changing. His rock-star status is the butt of this one:

"They’re saying that Barack Obama is starting to slip in the polls. But don’t worry. He has a plan. He’s going to go back to campaigning in Europe." — David Letterman

Some accuse late-night comics of hitting Republicans harder than Democrats, but, for the most part, they go wherever the laughs are — their jokes often reflect what America is really thinking.

If Obama starts becoming the butt of jokes — if the comics begin mocking his inability to win, as they did John Kerry in 2004 — that won’t bode well for his chances in November.

I doubt Obama supporters will find anything funny about that.