Politicians should be allowed to tell bad jokes once in awhile

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
February 10, 2018 - 5:00am

KAMLOOPS — We’ve lost our sense of humour.

I recently made a joke about Prince George in an editorial and received a heated rebuke from a reader. I fully expected to get the same for some jokes about Alberta this week.

I was rather surprised when nothing happened, which I take to mean readers agreed with me that they shouldn’t get off the airplane when they travel through Calgary.

Pity poor Justin Trudeau. He made what he confesses to be a “dumb joke” at one of his town halls, telling a questioner she should refer to “peoplekind,” not “mankind.”

“We like to say ‘peoplekind,’ not necessarily ‘mankind’ because it’s more inclusive,” he said.

This resulted in a global poop storm of condemnation. The story was covered in media around the world.

“Shame on you for surrendering to the radical feminist mob,” tweeted none other than renowned British commentator Piers Morgan.

He elaborated on his horror and indignation in a 1,400-word diatribe in the Daily Mail headlined, “How dare you kill off mankind, Mr. Trudeau, you spineless virtue-signaling excuse for a feminist.”

A Fox News panel discussion featured critics calling Trudeau’s remark the stuff of “radical, leftist propagandists” and wondering whether the very survival of free speech is at stake.

The indignant Toronto Sun editorialized that Trudeau’s joke was “no joke.”

Our prime minister was quick to apologize, acknowledging that “I don’t necessarily have the best of track records on jokes.”

He’s correct that his joke wasn’t exactly hilarious, which is why people — including, obviously, Piers Morgan and Fox News — didn’t get it.

In ICBC terms, Trudeau was 50 per cent at fault.

Politicians like a good laugh as much as anyone else. Life would be very dull without humour. Kamloops mayors have been a mixed bag when it comes to jokes. The late Jim Walsh was a jovial sort. Peter Wing was a nice man but very subdued. Cliff Branchflower, when he was mayor, was known for his good-natured sarcasm.

Mayor Ken Christian is a funny guy but tends to confine the joshing to private conversations. Coun. Arjun Singh is a master of one-liners. Donovan Cavers’ wit is subtle.

It’s risky for politicians to make jokes. In writing, you can follow up a remark with a smiley-face emoji and you’re off the hook. Verbally, it’s more challenging, unless you put a silly grin on your face or add, “Just kidding” every time you say something you think is incredibly amusing but might not seem that way to everyone else.

Some prime ministers have done well with stand-up. Take Stephen Harper. OK, bad example — he never made a joke that could be verified.

But Jean Chretien, there’s a fellow who could and still can make you laugh, whether he’s describing the Shawinigan handshake or getting a pie in his face, or saying something self-deprecating about being unable to speak on both sides of his mouth.

“When you’re a mayor and you have a problem you blame the provincial government,” he once said. “If you are provincial government and you have a problem you blame the federal government. We don’t blame the Queen anymore, so once in a while we might blame the Americans.”

See, that’s funny.

I once had lunch with then-prime minister Brian Mulroney. I don’t remember him saying anything terribly funny but I didn’t want to pass up a chance just now to name drop.

Anyway, how about the time Sir John A. Macdonald was drunk and barfed up his lunch during a debate in Parliament.

“Is this the man you want running the country?” raged an opponent. “A drunk?”

Replied Sir John A.: “I get sick, not because of drink, but because I am forced to listen to the ranting of my honourable opponent.”

Now that’s good stuff. You might not think so, which is because one person’s (I almost said man’s) joke is another’s dumb comment. Really, though, we should lighten up. Every time a politician does a bad job with a joke, it’s not the end of the world.

Rather than apologizing, Trudeau should have done two things. First, tell Piers Morgan, Fox News and all the other humour-challenged media detractors to get a life.

Second, hire a good joke writer.

Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops. He writes editorials for CFJC and publishes the ArmchairMayor.ca website.