x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A little comic timing - and killer instinct - to be presidential

While President Obama's public persona may come across as cool and collected, he can still learn a few lessons from the master, Ronald Reagan.

Years ago, there was a comedy troupe in Los Angeles with a unique gimmick. They performed existing scripts - dramas, mostly - but they did them in a funny way. They didn't change the words, or the stage directions, or any part of the existing text. They just did them … funny.

It's hard to explain, but it worked. One of their biggest hits was a condensed version of Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder - a leaden, ultra-serious drama about a man at the end of his life, faced with his own irrelevance and impotence, who performs one final, fatal pointless gesture. It's a hard slog, watching that play.

But somehow - without changing a word - the comedy troupe made it uproarious.

It's all about attitude, I guess. There was something in the timing, the upturned eyebrow of the lead actor, the fluttery way the lead actress moved around the stage - I went expecting to hate it, and found myself laughing uncontrollably.

Attitude and expectation are the most powerful elements of any performance. Tell the audience to expect laughs, and they'll do their best to find some comedy to enjoy. Tell them it's a serious drama about love and loss, and they'll meet you more than halfway and get out their handkerchiefs.

American politics are a lot like that, too.

If I told you a story about an American president who boasted, in his campaign, to have visited "all 57 states" (there are only 50, for the record), or who got the year wrong when dating a document (he was three years off), you might expect me to be describing some humiliating antics of the recent President George W Bush. Instead, I'm talking about the current president, Barack H Obama.

When Mr Bush mangled the English language or made odd factual errors, we all chuckled sadly - even those who voted for the man - and wondered how on earth he became president of the United States.

When Mr Obama gets the year wrong, or is confused about the number of states in the union, we all chalk it up to jet lag or fatigue, and we look down at our shoes until someone changes the subject. Mr Bush was President Clown. Barack Obama is President University Professor.

We all have our political leanings, of course. But this really isn't a political matter. Instead, it's an example of how a performer's onstage attitude - the grinning and stuttering Mr Bush; the cool and collected Mr Obama - and the expectations of the audience - Mr Bush bumbles; Mr Obama glides - have more to do with how we enjoy the show than any other factor.

But all presidents end up looking stupid eventually. It's the definition, in many ways, of the job. It's impossible to keep that schedule, to face the barked questions of a dozen reporters, to have every moment recorded and sifted by a worldwide audience, without looking like an idiot at least 20 per cent of the time.

The master, of course, was Ronald Reagan, who came to office already skilled in audience management. He played the buffoon when it suited him - joking around with the press corps, making funny faces at Oval Office guests, snoozing during cabinet meetings - but it was all brilliantly crafted misdirection. His opponents were so busy laughing at him that they didn't notice his sly, cut-throat politics until it was too late.

He could also deliver a tear-jerker of a speech, without notes, and often without really knowing what the speech was about. And when he needed to look commanding and competent, he pulled that off, too.

But then, he had a lot of training. It's instructive, if you're a student of American politics to view his final film, a 1964 gangster potboiler called The Killers. Reagan, uncharacteristically, plays the bad guy. And boy, is he bad. At one crucial moment in the script, he stands up and slaps glamorous Angie Dickinson across the face with a nasty sneer.

It's weird to watch the man who became, barely 15 years later, an eye-twinkling, optimistic two-term president wallop the heck out of a woman, but there it is, in colour, up on the screen. He smacks her and then goes right back to plotting evil. It sure doesn't seem like very Ronald Reagan-ish behaviour.

But he made it work. He was always in control of the audience's expectations.

Perhaps President University Professor could use a lesson from The Killers as well.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood