Obama has flow
by Begoña Gómez Urzaiz
Probably not even O readers, used as they are to GIF critical analysis, will know that they’re now watching as a loop the Spotlight of moving images. Obama’s fake mini video, in which he appears arriving at Seoul’s 2012 Nuclear Summit on a skateboard to salute South-Korean Lee Myung-bak, won this year the Oscar of GIFs, the Gify, which has a similar legitimacy as those awarded by the Hollywood Film Academy. They are given by L.A. advertising agency CP+B, with a jury made up of reporters from Buzzfeed, Gawker and the Lil Bub cat. We have to acknowledge that the GIF’s editing is perfect, without seams, but if it works particularly well it is because a) Obama’s face and b) it is based on the it-makes-you-laugh-because-it’s-real paradigm.
With only a few months left to bid him farewell the net is already crying over who will forever be the first really cool US president. Bill Clinton might have had an almost toxic cheerfulness, and George W. Bush the appeal of the dimwit who laughs twice (among other things, because he did better than being smart), but only Obama has flow, swing and even swag. And he, who knows it, has progressively exploited it along the way. When he was still a candidate and at the beginning of his first term in office, despite him being surrounded by a fool proof aura that even granted him a preventive Peace Nobel Prize (“because what the kid’s about to do looks good” was, basically, the reason), there was a certain fear in his entourage of exploiting the supreme possibilities of a president who caught flies as if he were a bloody ninja. Maybe because it made evident that, well, he was also the first black president. They preferred joking about the idea of Obama as “dad”, wearing “dad jeans”, somewhat castrated by a woman who was without a doubt a force of nature. That was an effective comical, but not too risky, goldmine that looked for empathy, as if the average American could empathise with a half-orphan who went to Harvard and became a world leader after only four years of being an almost anonymous senator.
But as soon as they let the president lose, he started building a comical persona that went much better with his personality: the cool guy who isn’t ashamed of being so. Obama, who considers himself a connoisseur of humour, has declared he’s a fan of Louis C.K., Jerry Seinfeld (he also recorded his programme, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee), Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory, but as comedian in chief he has more in common with someone like Joel McHale, whom in fact he chose to present his 2014 Correspondents Dinner, that event in which the president is expected to behave as a stand-up comedian, something which for other presidents was a tough test, but not for Obama. There and in his many appearances on late shows (he was the first elected president to appear in one, with Jay Leno, and hasn’t stopped since: he appeared eight times in his friend Jon Stewart’s programme and his cameos with Jimmy Fallon are viral) he certainly sports a modern humour, with some ‘meta’ touches, but certainly not too self-deprecating, or just enough for a culture that demands a piece of humble pie for each two of arrogance. In his 2015 Correspondents Dinner, he made the obliged joke about not having any more elections to present to. The Republicans in the room laughed. And then Obama added an off-script joke: “I know, because I won both.” Mic drop.
In those occasions, the president can even get away with the cardinal sin of stand-up comedians, that is, laughing at their own jokes. “He gets a half-smile. He knows 100% what he’s doing”, said comedian Brian Alger, who has contributed to some of his speeches.
On his second term, the president has showed his chill on more alternative scenarios. He went to sell his health reformation to Between Two Ferns, Zach Galifianakis’ online programme, where he again exercised that almost-bullying humour we mentioned –“a third term would be as bad as doing The Hangover 3”- and he even recorded an episode of Marc Maron’s podcast, like another comedian, where he allowed himself to use the word ‘nigger’. This week, when he visits Spain in the last minutes of his presidency, he will be face to face with two Jedi warriors of coolness: the head of State, a man who writes “ahí va” on his Whatsapps (and warns people when he’s entering a group) and the president on duty. But that’s another story.