Politics & Policy


Why do people laugh when President Obama speaks?

Barack Obama, as observers have long observed, is many things to many people; and one of these, it would seem, is funny. An irregular thing happens when Obama makes a pause during a set-piece speech: People laugh.

By way of example, take the president’s statement to a Cleveland audience on June 16, in which he vowed that his economic plan “would get rid of pet projects and government boondoggles and bridges to nowhere.” Somewhat inexplicably, this sober oath produced widespread mirth in the assembled ranks — mirth that was tamped down only by a follow-on promise to build more highways and runways.

Likewise, last year at a DNC fundraiser, Obama told the assembled crowd that, “over the last 15 months, we’ve created over 2.1 million private-sector jobs,” an observation that was deemed sufficiently risible to elicit knowing laughter. The regrettable optics (or acoustics?) of this did not escape the notice of the powers that be, who were quick to recast the audience reaction in the official White House transcript from “laughter” to “applause.”

Even children are not immune to the habit: Visiting a public school in Ohio’s Shaker Heights district, Obama assured students, “You inspire me.” A heckler made an inaudible comment, in response to which the group fell about, forcing the president indignantly to insist: “You do!”

Mary Kate Cory, a speechwriter for George H. W. Bush, recalled the 41st president’s reminding her that “the American people did not elect me to be a stand-up comic.” By all account the electorate did not pick Obama to play that role either. So, where is this laughter coming from?

Skepticism about Obama’s claims may have something to do with it, but it’s also possible that audiences are reacting to something other than his words. Robert Provine, an American psychologist who has spent over a decade studying the science of laughter, writes that “only 10 percent to 20 percent of the laughter episodes” he catalogued “followed anything joke-like.” The “critical stimulus for laughter is another person,” he concludes, “not a joke.”

Provine found that we tend to laugh more when people stop talking. He calls this “‘the punctuation effect’ — the tendency to laugh almost exclusively at phrase breaks in speech.” These are particularly noticeable with a speaker such as Obama, whose style relies heavily on pauses and other dramatic tricks, and whose sentences are heavier on style than substance. At the University of Miami, Obama told a sympathetic audience that he was betting on an energy future that included “algae.” There was a pause, and then the crowd tittered appreciatively. The president confirmed: “You’ve got a lot of algae out here.” The laughter grew.

A second possible explanation for the president’s inadvertent comedic prowess is that people want to laugh with him. Comedians benefit from an audience that has deliberately come to see them, and Obama profits from congregations containing only the well disposed. When exposed to the president in close quarters, people of a certain disposition have a tendency to weep, faint, declare their love, shout platitudes, become manic, and smile like the cat that got the cream. Given that, as Provine argues, “laughter is primarily a social vocalization that binds people together” — and one that is “extremely difficult to control consciously” — there is no good reason that laughter should be absent from this assortment of reactions, especially as it would take only a couple of people to set it off. Witness the number of people at the Democratic convention who were driven to tears by an acceptance speech that the less casually lachrymose found, at best, pedestrian.

People used to behave strangely at Elvis concerts, too — even in his later years, hero worship was enough to spin straw into gold — and, while the more republican among us may find it distasteful, to treat politicians as rock stars is a very real phenomenon. Martin Luther once wrote that “you have as much laughter as you have faith.” This seems a fitting suggestion in the Age of Obama and among those for whom politics has become a religion of sorts. There was no word on what to expect of unyielding devotion, but one can only presume it accompanies hilarity.

All this is presumably helped neither by Barack Obama’s still being treated as a human Rorschach test nor by his affection for inchoate vapidities. How far the jump from considering that whatever your leader suggests must be Good to considering that whatever he says must be funny? Indeed, even outside of his base, the president’s numbers are irritatingly paradoxical. He is more liked than he is respected, and this raises the possibility that, although a majority appears to consider him somewhat incompetent, the country will nonetheless reelect him because it likes him.

Critics often deride Barack Obama as America’s first “celebrity president,” which, although not quite true, is a reasonable description. Undoubtedly, this shields him from the usually deleterious consequences of keeping the buck as far from his desk as he can. With 23 million unemployed, a record number on food stamps, America’s embassies under attack, and “Hope and Change” exposed for the charade that it always was, it may be that all we have left is to laugh. Immanuel Kant declared that “there are two things that don’t have to mean anything; one is music, the other is laughter.” And it’s certainly better than crying.

Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.


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