BY Russell Wardrop

DATE: 10 MAY 2009


Is there anything Obama can’t do?

Pity the poor stand-up who followed him at the Press Association Dinner as he cracked his audience up with some terrific material.  The consolation for mere mortals is that the Big Man delivered the material, but he probably never created it.

But the delivery is mostly exemplary.  If you want to know what timing is then take a look at these few minutes… it’s pause, and poise.  It’s waiting for your audience to catch up and get it; now that takes a lot of courage.  It’s being patient enough to wait until they reach a crescendo of laughter before you go on to the next line; that means looking and listening to what’s going on.

It’s being cool and confident enough to wait until you are ready to speak the line, learning it / reading it while the audience is doing the laughter thing.  Watch him at various points, he really is playing catch-up with the words on the page and stumbles a few times (but so what? He probably got given the final draft on the way there in the car).

To play catch up in front of a big audience, you have to really trust your material, and the people who write it.  Obama has good reason to do both, and if you take a look at his performance there is much more than just humour in the writing: there is truth.

Aristotle says that “Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor; for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.”  All of the barbs had a grain of truth in them, and sometimes more than a grain.  At a guess, for every line that went right up to the line, there were  a whole lot more left in the speech-writers office.

Best line? “Dick Cheney can’t be with us this evening as he’s writing his memoirs, tentatively titled, ‘How to shoot friends and interrogate people.’”

And what many will miss, but worth the six minutes it will take you to look at the second video, was the real reason Obama was there.  He was guest of honour, and tasked with giving a vote of thanks to the Press, which he did with incision, elegance, candour and grace in the four or so minutes at the end.

We can leave the last word on this to the inimitable Sir Winston Churchill, “A joke’s a very serious thing”.

As well as showing us that humour is one of the many gifts Obama has, a speech like this humanizes him to the press core, the country and the world.

Worth looking out for...

The visual gag at the beginning… with the autocue going up noisily… and after it does, says “good evening” again… then “pause for laughter…”

This gives him a few easy laughs and allows him into the speech without saying much.  Everyone also now knows they are allowed to laugh, because it’s going to be funny.

The Mother’s Day line, where he says Rob Emannuel (who is known as being profane) is not used to saying “Day” after “Mother” .

Context is everything here.  This is the Press, who are well used to industrial language.  They loved it, and so did Obama… he laughs out loud himself, almost as if hearing it for the first time… a very warm, human response.

Humour at the expense of the enemy… Michael Steel is in the house tonight… The Republican Party does not qualify for a bailout… Rush Limbaugh is not a troubled asset.

What an elegant way to put the knife in to the GOP (Grand Old Party; the Republicans).

Timing generally… Obama waits… and waits… and waits until they have had their fill of laughter… then sometimes waits some more… and he smiles and laughs to give himself time to get ready for the next line.

This waiting illustrates you are in total command of your brief and the audience (even if, as is the case with Obama, you are reading more than you would like to be).

How To Win Friends and Influence People … How to Lose Friends and Alienate People … on to How To Shoot Friends and Interrogate People.  A cruel and very funny jibe at someone who seriously deserves it: the sullen and self-important former vice-president.

There is some serious stuff in there about legislation, too, but not too much.  And all delivered with a good dose of humour.

And some terrific self-deprecating lines about, himself, Joe Biden and the hyperbole surrounding his first hundred days.  Self-deprecation can be taken too far and you end up being a parody of yourself, but any whiff of self-importance is lanced by this poking fun at the Obama mania sweeping the world.

And the final four minutes are a straightforward thanks to the press… just what he needed to do as that was why he was there in the first place.

If you ever need to do a vote of thanks, you’ll do worse than listening to this one and following the format (except you might want to make it nearer five to ten minutes, rather than fifteen).


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