Presidential Punchlines

Associate Professor of Communication Michael Phillips-Anderson discusses the art of humor in presidential rhetoric.

In the grand theater of politics, where presidential utterances are typically meticulously crafted and policies are debated with gravity, levity has often taken a back seat. But throughout history, presidents have also wielded wit as effectively—or as ineffectively, depending on your political commitments—as they have wielded executive power.

Associate Professor of Communication Michael Phillips-Anderson, whose scholarship focuses on rhetoric, politics, and humor as well as the role public discourse plays in the creation of active citizenship, believes humor can be a powerful tool in the hands of a president. 

We spoke with Phillips-Anderson about the nature of humor in general, and how presidents and presidential candidates—including Joe Biden and Donald Trump—use humor to engage voters.

What motivated you to study presidential humor?

I was in a doctoral program in rhetoric and political culture at the University of Maryland, and I’ve always been a big comedy fan: stand-up, movies, all kinds of stuff. And it occurred to me the question of how does humor work? It’s a little bit of an unusual communicative act. 

And it turned out that we’ve been studying humor for a couple thousand years in the West, since the pre-Socratics. Gorgias, an ancient Greek philosopher and rhetorician, urged orators to “destroy one’s adversaries’ seriousness with laughter, and their laughter with seriousness.” 

I was also interested in political communication and how politicians use humor. I was really interested in how they were using it strategically to accomplish other persuasive goals—they’re not doing it just to make people laugh, they’re doing it to make people laugh in service of getting elected, or persuading them to support or oppose an issue. So, it seemed like an interesting thing to study, and I both enjoyed it and regretted it as a subject area because it is bedeviling.

Why is the study of humor “bedeviling”?

On the one hand, humor has to be somewhat predictable in how it might work. In a political context, you want at least a good chunk of your intended audience to understand it; but how we actually experience humor is deeply subjective. And I don’t think it’s that much of a choice—we get the joke; it’s not like you hear the joke, consider its implications, think about the meanings, and then choose to laugh. It’s much more of an instinctual, physiological response, and we don’t have that response to other kinds of persuasion. If you’re giving a talk to a group, you know if they have gotten and enjoyed your joke, but you don’t necessarily know if they’ve gotten and understood your arguments.

But getting a joke isn’t just understanding it—you could totally understand the joke, but not find it funny. If a joke is about a subject we don’t know anything about, it can of course go over our heads. But even if you know the subject matter, you still just might not find it funny.

On the other hand, I could be trying to persuade you to buy a product, and I can understand everything that you care about with this, and that my product totally matches what you want, and it’s at the right price and all of that—but you still don’t have to buy it. There’s still this gap, and it’s that sort of space that I think is interesting but also kind of the bedeviling thing—why can’t we figure out how humor can just work?

A lot of people don’t realize that humor is a well-established field of research. The International Society for Humor Studies has been around for almost 50 years, and it’s something that has been written about in philosophy and psychology and neurobiology. I like the fact that people in a lot of different fields are interested in it, because to me it is an argument for being important. 

Why study presidential humor in particular? Do we really want our presidents to entertain us, or do we want them to just do the work of the presidency, like cut our taxes, defend our country, and veto stuff we don’t like? 

I kind of think we want them to do everything: We want them to entertain us to get and keep our attention because then we’ll be more likely to vote for them. But we also want them to do all these other things. 

And it is rare to find somebody who has all of these skill sets. Do we care if our surgeon can tell a good joke? It might make a difference when you are talking to prospective surgeons, you might feel more of a connection, but if somebody just comes out as a clown you might think they’re not the surgeon for me. You probably shouldn’t care what the political views of your surgeon are.

That’s obviously a more technical thing. But it shows why politics is different because it is about people. We aren’t just choosing them on a technocratic basis, but on a human basis. And because I think humor is so deeply tied into what it means to be human, I think that that is why it is something that we want to see in our presidents, if at all possible.

Politics is different because it is about people. We aren’t just choosing [a president] on a technocratic basis, but on a human basis. And because I think humor is so deeply tied into what it means to be human, I think that that is why it is something that we want to see in our presidents.

Since it’s a presidential election year, let’s talk about the differences in style of humor between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. 

Biden’s humor tends to be more scripted than Trump’s. Trump’s tends to be seemingly ad-libbed. Some of the things, like his nicknames for people, he’s clearly given some thought to ahead of time. But he hasn’t scripted out the jokes like I think a lot of Biden’s jokes are.

Both of those things kind of fit with what we see as their regular speaking styles. Biden is using the teleprompter more, while Trump almost never uses a teleprompter, and when he does, he’s not good at it, so it doesn’t seem believable.

I do think Trump is presenting as an entertainer, rather than as a stand-up comedian, for example. I think it is more like the kind of comedy of reality television, since that’s the world that he comes from. It’s about ridicule—most of reality television is laughing at the kind of grotesquery and foibles of these people on the show. They are held up for us to knock them down, right? I don’t think Trump is up there with the intention that we are going to knock him down, but he is up there sort of presenting the reality show; he is putting forward the people and the things that he wants his audience to knock down.

How does all of that compare to Biden’s approach to humor?

I think the kind of jokes that Biden does are much more classic political jokes. They’re more scripted, and I think that they are for a different audience. I’m sure there’s a segment of his audience that wants him to rip into Trump mercilessly, but I think Biden is a little uncomfortable with that. 

Like at the recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which is a traditional venue for political humor, I think Biden had to sort of work himself up into being a joke teller, because I think his team thinks it will get under Trump’s skin.

And I think they’re right. The thing that Trump can’t abide is being laughed at. It’s one of Trump’s recurring themes—he’s said it about Obama and Biden: “The whole world is laughing at us.”

I think the worst thing in the world for Trump is being laughed at. Which is why I think humor may be an interesting strategy to use, because I don’t think he can just let it go. I think you can get under his skin relatively easily.

How does the humor of Biden and Trump compare to some of the historical instances of presidential humor you’ve studied?

In the Correspondents’ Dinner, one of Biden’s jokes was about the age issue that has been dogging him in the media. He said, “Of course the 2024 election is in full swing and yes, age is an issue. I’m a grown man running against a 6-year-old.” 

That echoes Ronald Reagan’s 1984 debate with Walter Mondale. Reagan was running for reelection, and in his first debate with Mondale, Reagan seemed confused, he was making misstatements—all kinds of stuff—whereas Mondale did quite well. 

But in their second debate, Reagan was asked a question about his age: “You already are the oldest president in history. … I recall yet that President [John F.] Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?”

But as soon as the reporter starts asking the question, Reagan dips his head a little bit and smiles—so you know he’s thought about this kind of question and knows what the answer is going to be—and he says, “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I will not exploit for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

And it’s amazing. Mondale laughs and the audience roars, because it’s so well done. It’s sort of self-deprecating: He gets to take a jab at his opponent, but in a very friendly way. The age issue wasn’t a focus of reporters for the rest of the campaign.So, I think that whoever was writing the jokes for Biden for that, I’m guessing that they were thinking about that joke, and trying to figure out a new version of it.