The State of the Union address is an important ritual in American politics, but it also tends to be so boring that counting Nancy Pelosi’s blinks passes as entertainment. Gerald Ford kept the audience on its toes by declaring “the state of the union is not good,” but recent presidents have tried another tactic: throwing corny dad jokes into the most-watched speech of the year. We’ve analyzed recent State of the Union stand-up routines, and the results do not bode well for President Obama’s speech tonight. Our advice: If Michelle is already making the face in rehearsal, don’t try out the joke on millions of people.
8) Obama makes a TSA funny: Obama’s quip that, for some trips, high-speed rail will be “faster than flying, without the pat-down” is so weak it might not even qualify as a joke. The remark elicited only a pity smile from Joe Biden, and the president of the ACLU tweeted, “President Obama makes funny about TSA pat-downs, but the violations of the Constitution are NO JOKE!” The nation was not ready to laugh about having one’s junk touched back in 2011.
7) Obama gets literal about “spilled milk”: His 2012 punch line about unnecessary federal regulations on the dairy industry was met with groans in the chamber, but it killed among kindergarteners who stayed up late to hear the speech.
6) George W. Bush teases about taxes: In his last State of the Union, 43 won over the crowd with a joke about people saying they’re happy to pay higher taxes. ”I welcome their enthusiasm, and I am pleased to report that the IRS accepts both checks and money orders,” he said. It’s not the best line, but after the “axis of evil” and Saddam Hussein’s “significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” the bar was pretty low for lighthearted State of the Union moments.
5) Obama serves up lox: In 2011, the president waded into the complicated matter of how salmon are regulated. “The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater,” he said. Then the kicker: “I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.” The joke may have worked too well, as NPR found that salmon was the most remembered word of the night. Americans secretly yearn for more Borscht Belt humor.
4) Clinton shares a note with Newt: When asked what he wanted to hear in President Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union, House Speaker New Gingrich said, “Thank you and goodnight.” Just before starting his speech, Clinton took a moment to pass his nemesis a note that said “State of the Union Address” followed by “Thank you and goodnight.” The presidential inside joke made a big impression on Gingrich. Last year he mentioned it on CNN as an example of how, unlike Obama, “Clinton was fun.” Though he also claimed Clinton handed him a resignation note and took it back, which is not corroborated by the video.
3) Clinton makes a teleprompter quip: After famously being forced to ad lib a speech for ten minutes, one year earlier, owing to a teleprompter error, President Clinton started his 1994 speech by saying, ”I’m not at all sure what speech is in the teleprompter tonight, but I hope we can talk about the State of the Union.”
2) Reagan, America’s oldest president, admits he’s been around for a while: Proving that great delivery can salvage even predictable old-guy jokes, President Reagan got a huge laugh in 1982 when he quoted George Washington, and added, “For our friends in the press who place a high premium on accuracy, let me say, I did not actually hear George Washington say that.”
1) George H.W. Bush gets self-deprecating: The president who started a feud with The Simpsons was not known for his comedic chops, but he hit it out of the park at his final State of the Union in 1992. He started with a solid quip about his wife’s popularity: “With the big buildup this address has had, I wanted to make sure it would be a big hit, but I couldn’t convince Barbara to deliver it for me.” And then he finished things off with the most high-profile vomit joke ever: “I saw the speaker and the vice-president are laughing. They saw what I did in Japan. They’re just happy they’re sitting behind me.”