All smiles: the Mike Huckabee of old. / Gage Skidmore
Ben Schwartz,  March 23, 2017

Open Mike

The souring of Mike Huckabee’s jokes

All smiles: the Mike Huckabee of old. / Gage Skidmore
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It is with a heavy heart that I must report that Huckabee is at it again. That is, the ex-governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, has tweeted a new joke. Over the last year, Huckabee has gained a reputation as one Twitter’s high-profile joke writers. “High profile,” I should add, is not a euphemism for “hilarious.” Yesterday, he unleashed the following on the Senate hearings of Trump Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch:

And Twitter lit up. “Mike Huckabee” trended for hours, and as of this writing, the tweet has 2,553 RTs and 8,259 ❤s. His mentions filled with angry liberal tweets insisting that he is not funny, that he is wrong about Gorsuch’s mastery of the Senate, while also reminding him repeatedly about that time his son killed a stray dog. All of which is true. As Huck has learned in his first year as an internet wag, comedy is a rough business (although not as rough apparently as dog life in Huckabee country). It’s full of hecklers, trolls, and haters. Like so many thin-skinned comics these days, Huck lashed out in classic I’m Not Mad–style a few days ago. 

But the nation can come together on one core truth: Huckabee’s jokes really are colossally bad. As a joke writer, he is held back in two ways. He doesn’t know how to actually construct a joke, and he has no talent for actually spotting what’s funny. Later that day, Senator Franken roasted Gorsuch for one of his more absurd legal opinions. “Now, I had a career in identifying absurdity,” Franken said. “And I know it when I see it.”

Huckabee, by contrast, has never seen it. Like the hackiest liberal late night comics, his jokes only appeal to like-minded partisans. Leah Krinsky, a writer on Conan, took a look at the Gorsuch sausage joke for us, and noted the following:

Jokes depend on the element of surprise and there’s no surprise here because Huckabee uses the word “sausage” several times before the punchline, which is “sausage.” He kills the joke by overexplaining it. If he’d tweeted, “I’m gonna start calling Neil Gorsuch Jimmy Dean because today he’s grinding up Democrats into pure pork sausage” he’d kind of have something more closely resembling a joke. But still not a very good one.

Up until last year, Huckabee had tried appealing to us as the cool Republican in the room, showing off his bass-playing skills with his band Capitol Offense. His Twitter bio still reads, “Former AR Gov, Bass Guitarist.” But that’s some false advertising, because that Huck brand pretty much died with his presidential campaign last February. I only noticed this on November 12, 2016 when Huck tweeted his delight at seeing Jerry Seinfeld live. 

Now that’s the Huckabee I’ve known and never liked for decades. And now that Seinfeld has quit playing PC college campuses for Arkansas arts centers, it’s nice to see that he and Huck have found each other. But days after that tweet, then–President-elect Trump’s war with the media escalated when he ditched the press corps to go out for a steak. On November 18, Huckabee went after the hated lugenpresse

That’s right: a week after seeing Seinfeld and praising him for not doing any political jokes, Huckabee stole a Soup Nazi reference from Seinfeld’s TV show and then politicized it. OK, he’s young in comedy years and desperate for attention, so he pirated a joke. And even putting aside his allergy to syntax or proper exposition (“has dinner w/o press;say it’s their job”?), his open contempt for the press, couched in a folksy new brand of fuck-you, cracker-barrel trolling feebly passes itself off as “cute” with the soup Nazi reference. Where’d that come from? A country smile often hides a lot, true, but still, Huck always smiled at us.

Recently, on March 17, he eschewed the professional politician’s annual Top of the Mornin’–style tweet on St. Patrick’s Day to drag Snoop Dogg instead. Huck got mad about Snoop’s new video, which some (including Trump) saw as a death threat aimed at the president, and then Bow Wow’s follow-up comments about wanting to pimp out The First Lady. Huck swung back: 

As Huckabee’s brutal mentions for that one show, he should consider never uttering the word “dog” in public again. “Poop Dogg” is a cap most comics would reserve for appearances at grade schools. And “Who let the dogs out?”—that’s a reference to a seventeen-year-old song which those grade-schoolers won’t get. That’s another problem Leah Krinsky sees with Huck’s latest tweets: Huck and Twitter’s core user group of under ninety-year-olds have little in common. As Krinsky notes of his recent topical references:

Lindbergh baby, old, old OLD reference. But maybe he’s playing to his audience. Amelia Earhart and Jimmy Hoffa . . . oy. This guy thinks he’s a fucking laugh riot, doesn’t he? I’d tell him to update his references and learn some joke structure and maybe he can get some opener work in Branson.

Yes, Huck thinks he’s both hilarious and insightful in his tweets, which comes across as smug—a true joke-killer. Self-satisfaction was something that the old Huckabee managed to bury under Andy Griffith–style, aw-shucks humility for much of his career. So students of this Twitter-engaged phase of Huckabee’s career have to ask: Where did Dark Huck come from? Where did the good-natured country boy who chuckled about ruling us all with Bible law go? Last year, he even laughed along with the rest of us as his presidential campaign and entire political career ebbed so low even Trump didn’t bother trolling him.

It’s true Huck laughed about it, but that doesn’t mean he liked losing. Recently he tweeted about his daughter Sarah’s new job in the White House when she was featured in Voice of America magazine. 

Self-pity, bitterness, and a transparently tetchy and self-serving sense of humor—all the elements of a perfect Twitter storm. In 2016, his campaign dying, he was so desperate for media attention he was the only GOP candidate to subject himself to a guest appearance on Robert Smigel’s Triumph’s Election Special 2016. It debuted February 8—already too late to do Huck any good. By the time it dropped, he had dropped out of the race six days earlier. Huckabee’s segment has Triumph the Insult Comedy Dog trying to coach the soft-spoken governor into going full Trump on his opponents in the next debate. “Here’s what I really do for a living,” Triumph tells him. “I hurt people’s feelings. I’m an insult comic . . . that’s the wave of the future. That’s what Trump is doing. Will you let me help you prepare?” After listening to Huck’s hardest jab at Ted Cruz—“Have you seen the new Ted Cruz alarm clock? It doesn’t go tic-tock tic-tock. It goes flip-flop flip-flop”—Triumph sighs. “Oh dear God. You’ve got to be Trump-level mean.”

Where did the good-natured country boy who chuckled about ruling us all with Bible law go?

Nice Huck wants to be mean, but he can barely bring himself to repeat Triumph’s jokes about other Republicans. So Triumph throws jokes at Huckabee to get him mad. “You’ve shown remarkable resilience in this campaign. How do you run a campaign over the noise of your staff typing their resumes?” “What do you think about the Syrian refugee crisis? I’m talking of course about the refugees from Arkansas. And by that I mean, people from Arkansas fleeing to Syria for a better life.”

Triumph toughening Huckabee up is a comedy equivalent of R. Lee Ermey going at Vincent D’Onofrio’s Leonard “Private Gomer Pyle” Lawrence in Full Metal Jacket with, “What is your major malfunction, numb-nuts? Didn’t Mommy and Daddy show you enough attention when you were a child?” Huck, like Private Pyle, transforms into a new man on Triumph’s Parris Island of comedy. After all, a man with no political future has nothing to lose—and Huck’s Twitter feed now embraces every piece of advice Triumph gave him. It only lacks one thing: Robert Smigel writing better jokes. It’s a defect Huck accepts, as he proved on Sept 10 of last year with his tweet: 

Huck accepts it, because his jokes go viral even when they demonstrate no visible relationship to humor. No, Huckabee is not a funny fellow in the traditional way that funny people think up funny things to say that other humans find funny. But his troll game for pushing predictable liberal outrage buttons is gold. Wrong, dumb, smug, and aggressively anti-fun, Huck’s Twitter feed is as reliable as a HuffPo Ted Nugent update or a Susan Sarandon quote anywhere. Liberals can’t resist it. Huckabee now has 610,000 followers and he trends all day off a single bad tweet. As the master himself might put it: Go ahead and say it—that’s more than his entire presidential run did for him.

Ben Schwartz is currently working on a history of American humor between the two world wars and can be followed on Twitter at @benschwartzy.

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