Please Advise! 'My Funny Speech Wasn't Funny'

Humour is unstable dynamite for politicians. Elizabeth: you bombed.

By Steve Burgess 12 May 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

[Editor's note: Steve Burgess is an accredited spin doctor with a Ph.D in Centrifugal Rhetoric from the University of SASE, situated on the lovely campus of PO Box 7650, Cayman Islands. In this space he dispenses PR advice to politicians, the rich and famous, the troubled and well-heeled, the wealthy and gullible.]

Dear Dr. Steve,

A number of late night talk show hosts, such as David Letterman and Jon Stewart, seem to be retiring these days. Any slots opening up for, say, Elizabeth May?


E. May

Dear Elizabeth,

This week Canadians have been reading reviews of a show few got to see -- a strategy best employed with Adam Sandler flicks.

Only a few seconds of video from the end of your ill-fated speech at Ottawa's press gallery dinner got wide play but those in attendance -- politicians and national media -- gave it the kind of Rotten Tomatoes score that makes Hot Tub Time Machine 2 look like The Godfather Part II.

You apologized, blamed fatigue and hinted that dinner wine may have played a role. Whatever else the incident accomplished, it has brought some attention to the awkward cultural overlap between politics and entertainment.

Oh. May. God.

I watched the whole speech, just short of 10 minutes in all. Hyperbolic reactions aside, it amounts to this, Elizabeth: you bombed. As the old saw goes, "Death is easy; comedy is hard." You were trying to be funny. You bombed, is all. I've done it myself. It is a miserable experience.

You did make the mistake of going all partisan on Stephen Harper's ass, which is frowned upon at these events. But I note you also tried to make fun of yourself and your hip replacement. Then you got into some questionable Freudian stuff about microphones. When Lisa Raitt tried to rush you offstage you were mid-routine, trying to do a joke based on an adapted TV theme: "Welcome Back, Khadr." Perhaps because you were being hustled offstage you then blurted the big finale: "Omar Khadr, you have more class than the whole fucking cabinet."

Like the more famous White House Correspondents' dinner, these Ottawa press gallery dinners are supposed to be jokey, non-partisan affairs. But the public response to your speech has been -- surprise! -- partisan. People who don't like you or the Greens have been crowing. People who love you and consider you to be Ottawa's sole truth-teller say that is exactly what you were doing, and your pompous audience didn't like it.

Meanwhile there's been a lot of tut-tutting from that audience. The National Post's John Ivison said your speech would have spelled political doom for Trudeau or Mulcair and that you should be ashamed.

The idea of such events is to step into a magical realm beyond partisanship where everyone acknowledges their own foibles and image problems, and mocks them. But your critics say you were too partisan. And Ivison, among others, says your speech was inappropriate for a national party leader.

So why hold these events at all? Why would John Ivison and other apparently shocked media types attend if they didn't intend to give politicians a free pass for the evening?

Perhaps there's a line of some sort, like on Benjamin Netanyahu's famous diagram. You crossed a bomb line, Ms. May. The audience felt the need to retaliate.

Lost in anger translation

There's an admirable goal behind these events. They are an attempt to get beyond the frequently childish antics of Question Period and the hyper-partisanship of modern politics and assert that all parties share a certain amount of good will, a desire to do what's right. Time out! Let's all have a laugh at ourselves.

It's rarely that easy. And there's a reason the public doesn't get invited to these events. Voters often react badly to the idea that politicians are just play-acting their daily outrage while behind the scenes they wink and nudge over beer. Hence the reaction to your speech Ms. May. People who support you hope you were really getting up to scream, "Screw you, I'm not playing along."

But I don't think that was your intent. I think you were just trying to play comedian, and failing.

Look at President Obama's annual routines at the White House Correspondents' dinner. They have frequently been hilarious and even revelatory. But he has writers. Pros pen his stuff, just as they do with Jon Stewart and David Letterman and so many others better qualified for the comedy gig. Anybody can be funny with good writers -- hypothetically, even Dane Cook.

That Daily Show effect comes into play here as well. Political satire has become not just entertainment but a means of educating voters who would otherwise be unaware of the issues. And leaders have discovered the importance of such shows -- the value in being good sports, appearing on the shows, going along with the jokes. But important as it is, humour is unstable dynamite for politicians. They forget at their peril that the best role for a leader in such skits is straight person.

What makes me sad about controversies like these is the message they send to the political class -- namely, that it's important to show a human side, but not your real one. Heavens no. We'll do some focus groups and come up with a much better human side for you.

Next year's press gallery dinner should have all the entertainment value of the next Adam Sandler flick. On the other hand if you're looking for a writer, Elizabeth, Jon Stewart should be available.  [Tyee]

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