Friday, November 3, 2006

"Dude, you're killing me. You totally Kerryed it."

The conventional wisdom now seems to be that John Kerry's bitingly unrepentant remarks in Seattle had at least two unintended effects: They kept the story alive for another day, providing fuel to the GOP spin machine, and they drove the final stake through his 2008 presidential ambitions. The latter may even be true, but it doesn't tell the whole story. If Kerry is unfit to lead it isn't because he's a self-aggrandizing preppie with no impulse control. It's because he's a joke-killer. Steve Young and Margaret Carlson, among others, have analyzed the "Kerry as jokester" angle. Let me add one observation to theirs, based on my time as a professional comedy writer: A guy who mangles a joke is not a guy who inspires.

Comedy is a fragile thing, and there are many ways to botch a punchline. My personal favorite is the Shmenge, in which the emphasis is placed on the wrong word or syllable, disrupting the rhythm of the joke and causing a fractional but fatal bump in the audience's attention. (Alert readers will intuit that the Shmenge is named for Yosh and Stan Shmenge, the accordion-wielding brothers played by Eugene Levy and John Candy on the old "SCTV" show, who memorably introduced themselves with the words: "I'm Stan Shmenge... " " ...and I'm Yosh Shmenge.") Almost as bad, however, is the method which involves leaving out one key word in a carefully-crafted punchline, altering its meaning and undercutting the intended effect. This has at least two results: It produces a baffled audience and a roomful of comedy writers with their heads cradled inconsolably in their hands. In neither case does it engender confidence or respect or affection, at least one of which I need to feel for a person before I can cast my vote.

This brand of joke-killing hasn't yet had a descriptive moniker like "The Shmenge." Maybe it does now.

Cross-posted from The Huffington Post.


Jeff Cohen said...

I actually breathed a little sigh of relief about this thing sometime yesterday when it occurred to me that this foolishness had basically killed Kerry's '08 hopes. Because you know he was going to screw it up eventually. Better now than after he gets the nomination! I mean, you know I like the guy - but what a crappy politician! He's like the anti-Clinton!

Bill Diamond said...

Hey Bill -- great post! Been a while. (Since we spoke, that is, not since you... oh screw it. You know what I mean.) Hope you're well.

Mickeleh said...

Kerry must be in agony over this. He has worked very hard since 2004 to rehabilitate his reputation with the base and to get Democrats elected.

It's a shame that some prominent Democrats were quick to throw him under the bus, but recovering from this gaffe was just not going to happen with Kerry. His responses were so long-winded that he gave editors complete control of which bites to feature.

Bad break. But I agree with jeff: better now than in 2008. I also agree with bill: great post. I wonder if Kerry as a verb will catch on.