Whether President Obama or Mitt Romney was funnier at the Al Smith dinner Thursday night is in the ear of the joke beholder. What's more interesting is which of their own jokes the candidates laughed at. These guys are busy, and they're not comedians, so they obviously had help in their joke writing. You can watch the full video of their routines here, which let's just go out on a limb and wager were mainly written by someone else. As they were delivering the lines, you could see that in the extra little smiles that shot across their faces when they thought a joke was better than the rest.
Obama seemed to like his first joke a lot: "Everyone please take your seats otherwise Clint Eastwood will yell at them." There's the playing to the crowd part, and then there's the after laugh, like he really thought about it.
When Obama made his self-deprecating jokes about his debate performance, he played it straight, which worked well. "As some of you may have noticed, I had a lot more energy in our second debate," he said. "I felt really well rested after the nice long nap I had in the first debate." But there was no basking in the laughter.
Obama thought this one was pretty funny, too. "I particularly want to apologize to Chris Matthews. Four years ago, I gave him a thrill up his leg; this time around, I gave him a stroke." He's more comfortable with that one, and it can't be a coincidence that the butt of the joke is not his performance, but liberal panic.
But one joke Obama didn't think was funny at all. Or maybe it was just that it was a too true joke. Obama said, "Ultimately, though, tonight's not about the disagreements Governor Romney and I may have. It's what we have in common, beginning with our unusual names. Actually Mitt is his middle name, I wish I could use my middle name."
No post-joke grin there. There was almost a bitter grimace, like, Really? You guys think that's funny, huh?
Let's isolate that expression:
See, it's funny because his middle name is Hussein and some people think that means he's Muslim and some politicians try to use that to their advantage.
Romney seemed ever-so-slightly uncomfortable with joking about his wealth. "Now Al, you were right, a campaign can require a lot of wardrobe changes. We -- blue jeans in the morning perhaps, suits for a lunch fundraiser, sport coat for dinner, but it's nice to finally relax and to wear what Ann and I wear around the house." That expression says, Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm rich.
Romney enjoyed a light shot at Biden: "I was actually hoping the president would bring Joe Biden along this evening, because he'll laugh at anything."
In his joke about media bias, you can really see his delayed pleasure in the line. "And I've already seen early reports from tonight's dinner, headline; 'Obama Embraced by Catholics. Romney Dines with Rich People.'"
But his favorite, to me at least, seemed to be this joke about Obama needing Bill Clinton to do his heavy lifting. "Campaigns can be grueling, exhausting. President Obama and are each very lucky to have one person who is always in our corner, someone who we can lean on, and someone who is a comforting presence. Without whom, we wouldn't be able to go another day. I have my beautiful wife Ann, he has Bill Clinton." Look how long he savored it.
There's danger in declaring a comedy winner, since it's so subjective. For example, The New Republic's Noam Schieber tweeted, "Al Smith dinner verdict: Obama's jokes abt the other guy were better, Romney's self-deprecating jokes were better. May or may not be telling." One way to take this is Obama's not good at making fun of himself. Or that Romney has done a lot of self-reflection recently. But it also says, essentially, that only Mitt Romney jokes are funny. Clearly Mitt Romney does not agree.