As the weekend began, I had the good pleasure of talking to San Francisco Mayor
Ed Lee in a social setting (the Asian Law Caucus 40th anniversary dinner). I’ll
say this for the Mayor. He’s far more charming and charismatic than the
mainstream’s portrayal of him as some milk-toast bureaucrat.
Still, I can’t see Ed Lee telling a dog-eating joke.
Until another dinner on Saturday, I’d put President Barack Obama in the same
But, boy, was I wrong.
If President Obama is telling dog-eating jokes, then it can only mean one thing
for the Asian American community: Obama is openly declaring his Asian
Even though the president recently stopped in Chinatown for take-out, in the old
days, Obama would simply trot out his half-sister Maya and her Chinese American
husband to gain Asian American street cred.
But rocking the dog-jokes at such a public event as the White House
Correspondents’ Dinner? The president sounds like he’s gearing up for Asian
Pacific American Heritage Month in May.
I mean, surely, you didn’t hear Obama during Black History Month telling
watermelon and fried chicken jokes, did you?
But dog-eating? Bring it on.
It was a bit surprising to hear it from a guy who doesn’t like to wear race on
his sleeve all that much, if at all. But surely there was no hesitation this
The joke? Obama set it up saying as a young boy in Indonesia his stepfather had
fed him dog.
Said Obama: “That’s pretty rough. But I can take it, because my stepfather
always told me, it’s a boy-eat-dog world out there.”
It wasn’t really that much of a revelation since he had owned up to tasting dog
in his memoir on his father.
But was the joke really all that funny?
I’ve told dog-eater jokes before for shock value 20 years ago. Dog-eater jokes
are the special province of Asian American humor users who want to use the
stereotype as a weapon to expose others’ racist sentiments.
In other words, if we’re all dog-eaters, then as James Brown would say, “Say it
loud, I’m a dog-eater and proud.”
Unfortunately, this often confuses the more common users of the dog-eater jokes,
the ones who use the stereotype to make fun of Asian Americans. These are the
individuals who see the use of the joke as license. They end up laughing so hard
they choke on their bacon burgers.
Like the debate on who can use the “N” word, who can tell a dog-eating joke
takes some sensitivity.
It helps to be Asian American. Or the president.
Therefore, the only real way to take Obama’s dog-eater joke is to say, amen.
It’s good to have an Asian American in the White House.
I had other issues with the president’s other dog joke, about the difference
between a hockey mom and a pitbull.
Said the president, “A pit bull is delicious.”
OK, so we’re serving up Palin burgers too?
I surely don’t like Sarah Palin as much as some of Obama’s former Secret Service
guys. And I was critical of the “Today Show” for renting her recently to be Matt
Lauer’s lap dog. But the joke was a bit odd for me. Even a replay of the
laughter showed many people weren’t sure how to take the joke.
But here’s where Obama showed his humor chops. He hung in with the joke. Like a
matador staring down the crowd, he milked that laugh like he was Shecky Obama.
If you laughed, it wasn’t because the joke was funny, it’s because Obama is so
But in the end, I cringed a bit as well.
What’s going on here?
I recall seeing Bill Clinton on the “Letterman Show” soon after he left office
for good. He was honest and relaxed and funny, and it was really the beginning
of Clinton’s rehab and resurgence as the most popular politician on the planet.
And while he did accomplish much leaving the government in surplus, he was far
more effective being a presidential personality than he was being president.
Obama seems to want to go right to the talk show couch before his first term is
An entertaining president is not necessarily a bad thing. But going for the
laugh is easy. A sense of timing helps. But with Obama, he’s pinning on the
“likeability” meter. He shouldn’t think that’s all it takes to get re-elected.
A few more accomplishments on the economy, on immigration reform, on civil
rights, on civil liberties would all be nice too.
Then we can all laugh a little easier.