On Not Being Funny At the Al Smith Dinner

October 23, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

I have a modest proposal for the next Al Smith dinner: the writers for each presidential candidate get together beforehand and trade jokes.

Neither Trump nor Hillary is what you would call a master of stand-up.* But it wasn’t just the delivery and timing that brought boos from the audience. It was the nastiness of the jokes. Here’s Trump

I am told Hillary went to confession before tonight’s event, but the priest was having a hard time and he asked her about her sins and she said she could not remember 39 times. Hillary is so corrupt, she got kicked off the Watergate commission.

How corrupt do you have to be to get kicked off the Watergate commission? Pretty corrupt.

The audience booed.

And here’s Hillary:

Donald wanted me drug-tested before last night's debate. And look, I’ve got to tell you, I am so flattered that Donald thinks I used some sort of performance enhancer. Now, actually, I did. It’s called preparation.

She also used this line, which got booed.

You notice there is no teleprompter here tonight, which is probably smart, because maybe you saw Donald dismantle his own. Maybe it is harder when you are translating from the original Russian.

People, this is not a roast. The awkward silences and audible boos are telling you that nasty jokes are off the menu. Gentle pokes, maybe. But what’s called for – and what previous presidential candidates have provided – is self-deprecation.

These jokes are nasty. And Clinton’s “prepartion” line is the opposite of self-deprecation. It proclaims her own virtue and Trump’s indolence.

Trump’s most successful joke – the only one to get applause – was the one that poked fun at himself. Well almost.

You know, the president told me to stop whining, but I really have to say, the media is even more biased this year than ever before. You want the proof? Michelle Obama gives a speech, and everyone loves it. It’s fantastic. They think she is absolutely great. My wife, Melania, gives the exact same speech and people get on her case. And I don’t get — and I don’t get it. I don’t know why.

OK, it was aimed not at himself but at his wife, but that’s close enough.

Clinton started with a couple of jokes that were about herself, though the first one was really about Trump’s characterization of her.

This is such a special event that I took a break from my rigorous nap schedule to be here.

And as you have already heard, it is a treat for all of you, too, because usually I charge a lot for speeches like this.

If Trump had used these lines (“Hillary took a break from her rigorous schedule of naps”), they would have been a disaster. A disaster.

So I suggest that the writers from each side trade the jokes that are more appropriate for a roast and convert them into self-deprecatory humor. Trump’s writers turn over their e-mail joke.

Trump: I was not really sure if Hillary was going to be here tonight, because, I guess, you did not send her an invitation by email, or maybe you did and she just found out about it through the wonder of WikiLeaks.


Clinton: I nearly didn’t make it here tonight. The invitation must have been in my e-mail. If it hadn’t been for WikiLeaks, I’d still be in Cleveland.

Of take this Clinton joke

People look at the Statue of Liberty and see a proud symbol of our history as a nation of immigrants, a beacon of hope for people around the world. Donald looks at the Statue of Liberty and sees a 4. Maybe a 5 if she loses the torch and tablet and changes her hair.

Now imagine a Trump version.

People look at the Statue of Liberty and see a proud symbol of our history, a beacon of hope for people around the world. So true.
But let’s be honest folks. If you’re like me you look at the Statue, and you also see a 4. [pause] Maybe a 5 if she loses the torch and tablet and changes her hair.

It would kill.

Of course, it’s an open question whether Trump would accept a deal that required him to swap retaliation for self-effacing humor.  Hillary, on the other hand, would go for it. . . depending on how the focus groups reacted.
* Videos of their performances are here  (Trump) and here (Clinton).

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