The Joke's on Our Nerd-in-Chief

By Jere Hester
|  Tuesday, Jun 23, 2009  |  Updated 6:03 PM CDT
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The Joke's on Our Nerd-in-Chief

Once impervious to most jokes, Obama's fanboy past may lead to a comedic future for the nation's satirists and talk show hosts.

Comedian John Hodgman’s routine at the Radio and TV Correspondents' Association dinner didn’t get anywhere near the notice of Wanda Sykes’ controversial White House Correspondents' Association dinner stint where, feet from President Obama, she all-but wished death on Rush Limbaugh.

Hodgman’s smart and funny bit didn’t even garner as much post-dinner press as Obama’s own soundbite-ready quips poking fun at Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.

But Hodgman – author, computer pitchman (he plays the hapless “PC” in the Apple commercials) and “Daily Show” contributor – effectively used subtle humor to hint at some truth Friday night as he declared Obama “the first nerd President of the modern era.”

It’s up to Obama to heal “the great and shameful division that has plagued our nation for so long. I am talking, of course, about the age old conflict between jocks and nerds. It is the culture war of our time,” Hodgman cracked.

Using slides, the comedian gave Obama a pop quiz on geek pop culture, with increasingly difficult questions about everything from Superman and Conan the Barbarian to “Star Trek” and “Dune.”

“You are clearly not exactly the person we hoped you to be,” Hodgman said with mock disappointment when the President was stumped by a three-part query about the sandworms in “Dune.”

Even as he’s played up his image as a sports fan, Obama hasn’t run away from his fanboy past, posing in front of a Superman statue, appearing in a special Spider-man comic and screening the latest “Star Trek” flick in the White House while embracing comparisons to Mr. Spock. Hodgman cited Obama’s “Spock-like calm,” and they exchanged split-fingered live-long-and-prosper salutes. (The dinner also saw the debut of “He’s Barack Obama,” an animated video from the JibJab satirists portraying the President as a comic book superhero.)

This all may seem trivial and frivolous, especially in our challenging times. But these kinds of personality traits and interests can lead to powerful, lasting impressions of our commanders in chief – think of Jefferson as the violinist; Teddy Roosevelt as the rugged outdoorsman; Richard Nixon as the occasional piano player and the more-than-occasional bowler who installed a lane in the White House.

Hodgman also may have succeeded where other comedians have failed by defining – at least in one aspect –  what’s funny about Obama. Comics, who had a far easier target in the final George W. Bush years, have yet to effectively mine our novice President for laughs –  though HBO’s Bill Maher recently ripped Obama as a disappointment, in what came across as more biting commentary than comedy.

Hodgman's perceptive, dry wit-punctuated performance fell somewhere in between Sykes’ May 9th evisceration of the right and Maher’s dressing down of the President, as a major moment in presidential humor five months into the Obama era. He also managed to pack his 15-minutes of fame in front of the President into 14 minutes of standup (these are the times of cutbacks, after all).

Check out the video of Hodgman’s appearance and decide for yourself whether the nerds will get their revenge.
 

John Hodgman at Radio & TV Correspondent's Dinner

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.

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