I was going to write about the use of jokes in politics and how political reporters never cover the subject for fear of sounding trivial. But then jokes suddenly starting happening everywhere.
The leader of Britain’s parliamentary opposition, Ed Milliband, made one of those doomed “relaunch” speeches last week which no one outside the political industry much noticed. An interview that morning intended to set the stage for the speech went awry when Milliband found himself being asked if he was too ugly ever to be elected Prime Minister.
Milliband’s looks may or may not be a liability but he has bigger problems. He never seems to find anything funny and never makes any jokes anyone can remember and retell. Plenty of leading politicians are born without a sense of humour, but the smart ones have that corrected. Margaret Thatcher wasn’t naturally hilarious and had to have jokes explained to her. But she had a speechwriter (the theatre director Ronnie Millar) who was funny and who, as someone reminded me the other night, carried a small notebook everywhere in which he recorded lines that he could use.
Milliband shares this humour-deficit with the strange collection of people currently slugging it out (“mud-wrestling for dwarfs” one commentator called it) for the Republican presidential nomination in the US. John Dickerson of Slate reflects here the Great Republican Humour Crisis and on what the presence or absence of gags tells you about politicos. And his piece has jokes. My favourite is the self-deprecating story told by a now-forgotten man called Mo Udall. Canvassing, Udall walks into a barber’s shop and introduces himself as the local candidate who’s asking for their votes. “Yeah,” replies the barber, “We were just laughing about that.”
Then I was reading Jeff Jarvis on watching the taping of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and starting to understand how far a supposedly “light-hearted” “comedy” show had travelled into journalism. What Stewart has is what the analysts call “engagement” although it might be better known simply as “connection”. His origins may be in satire, but the connection is built by the audience’s recognition that under the laughs, Stewart cares about truth.
And lastly a man who doesn’t seem to care much for it. Yesterday the owner of Britain’s Daily Express gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry in London. I suspect that Richard Desmond’s hour of testimony will come to be seen as the moment which captures the terminal decline of the country’s once popular daily papers. You need to watch the video to sense the full, weird misery of watching the owner of a once-admired paper explain why he doesn’t talk about ethics, trashes the reputation of people to whom one of his papers had paid more than half a million pounds in libel damages and argues that truth is anything anyone says it is.
And, yes, he did jokes as well. His plan for reform of the Press Complaints Commission involves having its members eat fewer biscuits and thinks its successor should be called “RCD”. Sorry, don’t follow you, said the judge leading the inquiry. “Richard Clive Desmond” said Desmond perkily. It was sad rather than funny.