Borrowing a strategy that has never backfired on a political figure in recent memory, Michele Bachmann opined last weekend that Hurricane Irene and the earthquake that hit DC were messages from an angry god. “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians,” she told a campaign audience in Sarasota. “We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?'” According to Bachmann, the source of God’s anger was clear: out-of-control government spending. Also, a teenage girl in Dade County was wearing really short shorts, but mostly it was the budget deficit. God is a known fiscal conservative; still, certain people felt that it was inappropriate to connect fatal natural disasters to campaign issues. So on Monday, Bachmann explained that she was joking. Quote after the jump.
Of course I was joking when I said that. It would be absurd to think it was anything else. I am a person who loves humor. I have a great sense of humor.
Ah, jokes. You can tell Bachmann has a great sense of humor, because she avoided the rookie mistake of trying to explain why, exactly, her statement could be construed as funny. That always kills it, as surely as the morning-after pill kills a human soul. Instead, she followed with what stand-up comedians call tags, the little remarks one makes after a joke to ride the laughter—in this case, mechanically insisting “I am a person who loves humor. I have a great sense of humor.” You can almost hear the Apollo going nuts.
Those of us who do not have great senses of humor may have a harder time detecting its exact location in her remark. Bachmann’s Sarasota gag contains several of the components of a successful joke, including establishment of the scene, a list, and direct dialogue—in this case from the Judeo-Christian god. For convenience, I’ve arranged them into a list.
- Premise: America is a predominantly Christian country that has remained solvent for over 200 years [implied.]
- Scene/setting: The east coast, where the American Congress convenes, has suffered a series of natural disasters.
- List: earthquake, hurricane
- Dialogue: “Are you going to start listening to me, here?” [God]
Arranged like so, this joke has some obvious spots that could be punched up. For example, Bachmann misses a golden opportunity and violates one of the few agreed-upon rules of humor by not adding a third item to her list. If she had one more natural diaster—e.g.: “an earthquake, a hurricane, a hole in the ozone layer over John Boehner’s face”—she could probably get a pacing laugh. There’s a similarly missed opportunity in God’s line, which could definitely be sassier. It depends heavily on delivery, but I think God would be funnier with sort of a Jackie Mason voice—”What, I’m talking to myself here?” Or he could have a catch phrase, like “Are you going to start listening to me, my chosen nizzles?” As a Republican, Bachmann can afford to work ethnic.
Momentum laughs like these are important, because Bachmann’s joke has a long setup. It’s all setup, in fact, which introduces another potential problem. Traditionally, a joke has a punchline. Consider the following classic:
A man walks into a bar and, seized by whimsy, asks the bartender to make him something he’s never had before. The bartender grabs the creme de menthe and whips up a grasshopper, which the man finds delightful. He likes it so much, in fact, that he drinks eight of them and has to walk home. On his walk, he sees a grasshopper sitting on a fire hydrant. “Did you know there’s a drink named after you?” he says to the grasshopper.
Hilarious, right? The man has entered a state of alcohol-induced psychosis. The joke survived in this form for decades, until in 1971 Steve Allen added the following line:
“Really?” the grasshopper says. “There’s a drink named Steve?”
With a punchline, this joke about the descent from anticipation to despair is even better. After a little brainstorming, we can come up with a number of punchlines to similarly improve Bachmann’s joke:
…God says, “Are you going to start listening to me here?”
- But the Democrats are against having both a hurricane and an earthquake, so President Obama negotiates a compromise of one hurricane and one earthquake.
- And the American people say, [deaf voice] “Did you tay someping?”
- But by that point, everyone is dead.
See? I am a person who loves humor. I have a great sense of humor.