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Mitt Romney's humor problem

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
updated 11:58 AM EST, Fri December 30, 2011
Larry Fine and Moe Howard practice their form of dentistry on Curly Howard in a still from a Three Stooges film.
Larry Fine and Moe Howard practice their form of dentistry on Curly Howard in a still from a Three Stooges film.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: Romney and his family say he's funny and loves jokes
  • Romney cited Three Stooges, Keystone Kops, but no jokesters in past 50 years
  • Avlon: If Romney is being candid, he missed more than a generation of classic humor
  • Or Romney is taking pains to depict himself in a noncontroversial way, Avlon says

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the new book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns."

New York (CNN) -- "I live for laughter," said Mitt Romney, unconvincingly.

But there's no question that highlighting Mitt's alleged inner jokester is a now part of Team Romney's charm offensive, designed to humanize their sometimes robotic candidate.

This effort extends beyond the surgical removal of his tie and studied mussing of his hair before debates. On the humor front, there are family testimonials, offered by his devoted wife, Ann, about how Mitt is sometimes her most "naughty" child. Sons are deployed to recount their father's penchant for practical jokes and corny one-liners.

John P. Avlon
John P. Avlon

But what raised my eyebrows was when Romney offered a list of his favorite funnymen to Wolf Blitzer that featured "Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges ... even the Keystone Kops."

The Keystone Kops hit their professional peak in the 1920s. Add that to his off-the-cuff comparison of Newt Gingrich's flailing campaign to "Lucy in the chocolate factory," and you get the impression of a man whose cultural references consist solely of black and white slapstick, most of it filmed before he was born.

It's not that the Stooges aren't funny. I've got a strange weakness for black and white movies myself, as my wife can patiently attest. Give me "The Thin Man," Preston Sturges, Frank Capra and even Charlie Chaplin -- but nothing after 1950 comes to mind when listing the films that make you laugh?

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Keep in mind that Mitt Romney was born in 1947, on the first wave of the baby boom. He was nearly 30 when "Saturday Night Live" debuted, with its iconic first cast of John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase. He was in a prime position to enjoy "Animal House," "Caddyshack" or "Trading Places." Maybe it's too much to hope that Mitt loved Red Foxx or George Carlin, but how about Bob Newhart at least?

There seem to be at least two possible explanations.

First, Mitt Romney was hermetically sealed from the cultural influences of his generation, emerging intact as an adult with the taste of someone born at least a half-century before. That almost seems possible. After all, Mitt was 20 when "Sgt. Pepper's" was released, and I think it's safe to say he didn't drink deeply from the Summer of Love. In fact, as a devout Mormon, he doesn't drink at all.

He is dry, button-down responsibility incarnate, for better or worse.

The second explanation is more cynical but at least as plausible.

Given the stiff and scripted nature of his campaign to date, it's entirely possible that Mitt filtered his funnyman choices through a political prism, carefully removing all those films that might offend.

That, of course, is an insult to the idea of comedy itself: something free-floating, incisive and often designed to offend.

Unless ... you pick the films your grandfather might have found funny, relics of a more censorious age. It's the safest move. Any voter who might be offended is already dead.

Authenticity is the enemy of the defensive campaign, and those politicians who feel compelled to project a false perfection. The irony is that voters ultimately respond better to candidates who take the risk of honesty. It is itself a revelation in our spin-saturated era.

Maybe Mitt Romney is the only baby boomer to have been entirely unaffected by the cultural tumult around him, but that itself would raise legitimate questions about his ability to relate to the nation he wants so badly to lead. The second scenario is worse: that he's a constantly calibrating salesman who can't even talk about laughter without cold calculation.

If that's true, this small snapshot reflects a core problem of his presidential campaign: Mitt Romney seems like a genuinely good man, but he does not seem genuine.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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