Is It Funny? is an occasional series in which we analyze so-called jokes that have created controversy. We aren't interested in the controversy, how tasteless they are, or whether or not they should have been said. We are only trying to determine the most important thing-- whether or not they were funny.
As you may have heard, Republican Presidential Candidate Michele Bachmann made a joke about the storm that killed 40 people over the weekend during a speech yesterday. She said, "I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’" It was clarified by Bachmann and her campaign that this was meant in jest, and was not an actually reflection of Bachmann's religion.
Since I shouldn't read into this as a way to learn what Bachmann thinks of God, I will instead analyze it to determine whether or not the joke is funny, and by extension, if Bachmann herself is funny.
First of all, I've decided to enter the world in which these kinds of jokes exist; one of suspended disbelief. Let's pretend that there is a god, first of all, and let's pretend that this god creates natural disasters for millions of people to make a political message to a few hundred legislators. Let's also pretend that the earthquake in Washington last week was comparable to Hurricane Irene.
Bachmann's joke fits neatly into the common jokes about how natural disasters are always a sign from God about something. You could make the joke that the hurricane was a sign from God that he didn't want anyone to watch the VMAs, or that the earthquake was a sign from God that he is rooting for whoever the University of Virginia's rivals are. I certainly can't fault her for using this common, if tired, joke. When two natural disasters fairly uncommon to the the region hit within a week, I'd say it is fair game to joke that a deity is trying to punish the people there (though Bachmann also works in Washington, D.C., and based on the fact that she is dangerously close to becoming the dumbest person elected president, that message could have been for her).
But this does not mean I'm ready to declare the joke funny. The main flaws of Bachmann's joke are in the delivery. Unheard messages from God are best used for comedic effect when it's told in story form. Take this recent cartoon as an example. In this, the faceless member of Congress praying to God receives a message and intentionally or obliviously fails to acknowledge it. This is funny because it plays with our expectations. But in order to manipulate expectations, you must first establish that expectation. Bachmann's joke failed to do this.
The humor in Bachmann's joke comes from God's point of view, the frustration he must feel in the fact that terrorizing millions of people in various ways is not a mode of communication that Washington is familiar with. People are stranded in Vermont-- how is that not a clear signal that God wants federal spending cuts? I guess, in a way, it is funny that God is so all-powerful, but he can't even compel his creations to do what he wants, or even that God is interested in nation-states' budgetary issues. (Also, I wonder if the 2004 tsunami was in to protest Indonesian federal spending.) But that's not how Bachmann meant it.
I guess I declare this joke Kind of Funny. It's not the funniest thing I've ever heard, but it isn't without humor. Whether or not a politician seeking the Presidency should joke about these kinds of natural disasters is not what I'm here to discuss, so I'll just end it at that.