There were three hours to go before Amy Klobuchar would take the stage with Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show,” and she had no jokes prepared. After several late night appearances she had learned one thing: It’s the host’s job to bring the comedy, not hers.
But from the moment she sat down on set to tape her appearance, she did not stop herself. At the top of the show, Mr. Noah ripped off his shirt to reveal a leopard print leotard, a crowd-pleasing reprise from his long-ago appearance on “Dancing With the Stars.” Then, when the senator joined him, he grew more serious.
“A lot of people say you were one of the winners of the last debate,” Mr. Noah began, addressing his guest. “Do you get a trophy? What do you get for winning a debate?”
There was a half second pause before she began.
“Well, I’m hoping I get to dance with you in that outfit,” she said, as the audience exploded with laughter again. “I’m thinking at the end of the interview.”
In the end, there was no dancing and no trophy for Ms. Klobuchar. But her late night TV appearances, including on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” on Tuesday, last month’s debate and time out on the trail all point to a different kind of bragging right: Ms. Klobuchar is funny.
Wry, wholesome, self-deprecating, sometimes hokey funny, but funny. She has comedic timing, occasional deadpan delivery and a more than occasional wink to reveal just how hilarious she thinks she is.
This is all part of Ms. Klobuchar’s approach: She sees humor as a strategy, a way she can disarm an opponent, charm a voter and, she hopes, undercut President Trump on the debate stage. “When things are so divided in politics it helps to warm things up a little bit and find something that people agree on,” she said in an interview.
Shortly before Ms. Klobuchar declared her own presidential bid earlier this year, Abigail Bessler, her 24-year-old daughter, an amateur stand-up comic herself, somewhat sheepishly reminded her mother about the senior thesis Ms. Bessler wrote at Yale. The topic: the use of humor in presidential politics and the “Path to Power Through One-Liners, Talk Shows and Tweets.”
“Should an orator want to stir up laughter?” Ms. Bessler asked in her thesis. “The answer is a fairly resounding yes.”
Additional gems from the paper, written to complete a degree in political science, include:
“Humor can be used as a political weapon: to attack opponents, inoculate oneself from criticism, establish one’s good humor and more. Through comedy and wit, a politician can reduce audience scrutiny of arguments by appealing to their emotions and allowing them to discount any messages they might disagree with as ‘just a joke.’”
Sitting with her daughter over plates of dumplings and sweet potato fries before her “Daily Show” appearance, Ms. Klobuchar spoke in great detail about the way she thinks about her own humor and power.
Do not call it “mom humor,” a term Ms. Klobuchar disdains because, she said, it implies she is not actually funny. Never mind the fact that Ms. Klobuchar poked fun at her own mothering during a nationally televised debate, describing herself “meddling” in her daughter’s weekend social life. “In my mind as a mom, it’s not lame at all,” she quipped.
(As for “dad humor” — Ms. Klobuchar said that while her husband, John Bessler, is constantly trying out new jokes and offering her new material, nine out of every 10 of his attempts are more likely to make her laugh him, rather than with him.)
Ms. Klobuchar’s brand of comedy is a clean, “aw, shucks” approach that conveys her own background as a Midwesterner, a mom and a slightly exasperated politician. She laughs easily, at herself and others, and can recall dozens of her successful zingers.
At a campaign stop in Virginia last week, she recounted her personal favorite: On her first Senate race, scrounging to find money any way she could, she started calling up men she once dated.
“I raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends,” the joke begins. “That is not an expanding base.”
The first time she delivered it, she said, was in liberal Los Angeles, during a fund-raiser at Danny DeVito’s home. Initially, she presumed it was the kind of racy humor that could only go over well in Hollywood. But slowly, she began trying it out on Midwestern crowds and found that it got peals of laughter there too. When she delivered the monologue in 2009 at a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, D.C., the $17,000 ex-boyfriend fund made its way into her remarks there too.
“True story!” she added then. “I know that is the record in the Senate, but in the House it’s held by Barney Frank,” she said, referring to the then-congressman of Massachusetts. The joke got roars of laugher, including from Mr. Frank. (One reporter at the time called her speech “bring down the house funny.”)
President Barack Obama would later joke at then-Senator Al Franken’s expense, saying that the professional comedian was the “second funniest” senator from Minnesota.
There’s an addition to the joke now: Ms. Klobuchar declines to say how many boyfriends chipped in.
More recently, she has been particularly fond and proud of an exchange she had with Mr. Trump soon after she announced her presidential run. Noting the inclement weather as she stood outside talking about fighting global warming, Mr. Trump tweeted that by the end of her announcement speech she “looked like a Snowman (woman).”
“I wonder how your hair would fare in a blizzard?,” she wrote back on Twitter.
For months, Ms. Klobuchar made the joke part of her stump speech. But she mostly retired it after Mr. Noah made a clip reel showing her using the hair joke several times. (Recycling is, as Mr. Noah no doubt knows well, a familiar aspect of the comedian and politician’s playbook.)
The campaign has provided plenty of fodder for new material. On “The Late Show” Tuesday. she said the backstage atmosphere at the debates is more friendly than competitive. So much so, she joked, that she’s passed notes on the edge of the stage, where the lower polling candidates are placed.
A former aide did recall one joke that fell flat publicly: During a confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, Ms. Klobuchar asked Ms. Kagan whether she was on team Jacob or Edward, a reference to the “Twilight” series that was popular with teenage girls at the time. Ms. Klobuchar was simply trying to lighten the mood, but Ms. Kagan looked at her blankly and replied “I wish you wouldn’t.”
Like any comic, Ms. Klobuchar said she is constantly looking for and testing out new material, learning quickly what works and what doesn’t. Her daughter often provides suggestions that Ms. Klobuchar accepts, though the opposite almost never happens, the two said.
Another recent favorite is one comparing herself to Melania Trump, at her own expense.
“She was born, it’s true, an hour away from where my relatives were from in Slovenia. And every time I look at her, it’s like looking in the mirror,” the joke goes, which reliably gets laughs.
Many of her jokes are so goofy the listener just has to laugh. When three campaign volunteers in New Hampshire recently lined up each holding a letter of her name, Ms. Klobuchar reacted with some glee.
“Look what they can do with my name,” she told a radio reporter. “Have you seen this? Let’s make yam!”
There was some chuckles. “And then we could do May,” she went on. “It just shows a kind of broad support. We have the yam vote.” (A call to the United States Sweet Potato Council confirmed that, unfortunately for Ms. Klobuchar or any other anagrammatical political aspirants, the association does not endorse candidates.)
During a recent tour of a manufacturing facility at Nashua Community College, Ms. Klobuchar paid careful attention as an instructor showed her how a machine created a metal fastener. Then, like a stealth class clown, she interjected: “I have a real desire to pull this emergency stop — maybe it’s because of Washington right now.” (Ms. Klobuchar did keep her hands off the machine.)
Later that evening, she stepped into a hotel conference room, where a Halloween-themed wedding was set to take place. She took in the scene of black tulle and pumpkins, wondering aloud whether a witch was getting married. Then she began, unprompted, to talk about her own personal favorite Halloween costume: when she dressed up as “Purple Rain” in law school.
Like a proud mother, Ms. Klobuchar said she has read her daughter’s political comedy thesis more than once, and even passed it on to John McCain and Mitt Romney, who are both mentioned in the paper. And Ms. Klobuchar has used several of her daughter’s humorous videos, which Ms. Bessler began creating after her mother called urgently asking for “something viral.”
But asked whether she was taking any advice from the thesis, the answer was a firm no. She would not, she said, be hiring any joke writers, as other candidates have done. Still, knowingly or not, she is taking a page from her daughter’s research.
Several academic studies “showed voters’ increasing attention to comedy shows over hard news sources, and found that candidates’ appearances on late-night shows increased voter knowledge more than morning shows,” Ms. Bessler wrote. “Politicians appeared on entertainment shows more and more to reach out to voters, and consultants knew an effective parody could change the course of a campaign.”
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