Political Humor: Rules from Obama’s Al Smith Dinner Speech

Humor is an effective tool in numerous formal settings, including speeches. Jokes help speakers earn audience attention, demonstrate personality and focus on issues without sounding too forceful.

The annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner provides a forum for typically serious speakers to show they can also make—and take—a joke. During the 2012 dinner, President Obama demonstrated many of the rules for political humor, as well as general rules for political speeches in any setting.

Here are five of the rules his speech followed:

Open strong

Instead of opening by thanking a long list of people or expressing his pleasure for being at the event, President Obama opened with a joke.  Not only did he open with a joke, but he also made the joke fit naturally into the context. “Everyone please take your seats,” he said. “Otherwise, Clint Eastwood will yell at them.” He had people laughing and ready to listen before they were even seated.

Be timely

The joke about Clint Eastwood referred to a speech the actor had given about two months prior at the Republican National Convention. Everyone in the room likely understood the reference, since the dinner was also in a political setting. Obama later referred to his endorsement by the TLC star Honey Boo Boo, making a reference to popular culture.

Late night talk show hosts also follow this rule. Timely jokes serve two purposes. First, they sound funnier because they have not yet been overdone. Second, audience member feel satisfied when they recognize a joke tied to a current event because it shows they stay updated on news and trends.

Don’t cross the line

The presidential candidates were expected to make jabs at the opponent. Obama made fun of himself first, showing that he knows how to take a joke. Only after he had the audience laughing about his own faults did he make jokes targeted at Governor Romney.

When Obama finally delivered a joke about Romney, it was tasteful. He made a jest about shopping at stores in Midtown, while Governor Romney was shopping for stores in Midtown. Since Romney also made jokes about his own wealth, Obama chose a safe topic. His joke was humorous, without making anyone uncomfortable.

Establish credibility

In the middle of his speech, Obama mentioned the unemployment rate was at its lowest point since he took office. “I don’t have a joke there,” he said. “I just thought it’d be useful to remind everybody.” Since this was actually a joke, it reminded people of the statistic without coming across as conceited.

Obama also showed he had an interest in the Al Smith Dinner. While it is full of humorous speeches, the dinner also serves the purpose of raising funds for Catholic charities. He complimented the Catholic Church for its work and then quoted a passage of scripture from the book of Romans. Both of these actions demonstrated respect for the cause, thus enhancing his credibility as a speaker.

Be humble

Although the speech was funny, it ended on an inspiring note. Obama did not address his own merits. He instead expressed admiration for Romney and complimented him for his devotion to his family.

He moved on to connect his and Romney’s beliefs to those of the entire event. He honored Al Smith by asking everyone to do their “’full duty as citizens.”’ Obama could have chosen to end with the call to action to vote for him. Instead, he chose to remind everyone the true purpose for which they were gathered, to honor Al Smith’s memory and raise funds for charities.

You can watch the full speech here.


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