Why Does Hillary Clinton Have to Be Funny?

Do you care if your president makes you laugh?

09.22.16

Did you see Hillary Clinton on Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns” this morning? You can watch above. I chuckled out loud at least three times during the interview. That’s more than I’ve laughed during her myriad pop culture media appearances over the past year, none of which offended me, some of which delighted me, but all of which felt a little…well, acutely positioned?

Her cameos on Fallon and SNL last year stand out in my memory as some of her first appearances that were orchestrated to get a millennial laugh. Her interview with Lena Dunham for Lenny Letter last year was one of the first times I remember observing in her an unselfconscious willingness to entertain kooky questions. At least as a presidential candidate.

She honed her ability to deliver a punchline during this interview with Stephen Colbert the day before the New York primaries in April, then again when she played “who’d you rather” on Ellen in May. In August she poked fun at her health critics on Kimmel, then joked about her pneumonia on Fallon. Her forthrightness on Humans of New York a couple weeks ago was, in my opinion, one of her most profound entry points into Internet culture, if a little less mainstream.

Obama was the first US president to get really good at pop culture. Maybe because of who he is, maybe because of timing, probably a little bit of both. It’s hard to deny he’s set a precedent. Now, it seems any presidential candidate that hopes to make a good impression on the American public ought to pay serious mind to Twitter, Instagram, SNL, late night talk shows, etc.

On the one hand, of course. These outlets are important, to ignore them during a campaign would be tantamount to sticking your fingers in your ears. On the other hand, it still feels a bit novel to give politicians the same PR treatment we’d give, say, Justin Bieber after he peed in a bucket. It’s not hard to remember a time when “pop culture” was relegated to a separate low-brow orbit. When an interest in it was considered a guilty pleasure. This intersection can still feel awkward. Watching politicians joke and sing and dance like total dorks all over television is as weird as it is refreshing. It’s humanizing.

The politician as celebrity feels, in some ways, progressive. We no longer rely on political speeches alone. No one gets to duck behind the curtain until they choose to get behind a microphone stand again, perfect script in hand. No one gets the hands-off treatment. But it also feels scary. The outlines are filled in with screaming color. The picture is fuller but it’s also messier and more vulnerable to being misconstrued. When a politician’s success is caught up in the tides of what makes stuff go viral — that is to say, MYSTERIOUS FUCKING TIDES* — we’re at risk of pushing loud voices forward instead of smart ones.

*peanut butter baby

Photograph via NBC/Getty Images.

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