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Among the four candidates on the top ballot line for the two major parties this year, only one man has never shifted roles, through five decades in politics: Joe Biden. The vice president has always been a punch line.
It’s the joke that keeps changing.
These days, on “Saturday Night Live,” in “The Onion,” and as @VeepJoeBiden on Twitter, Biden is represented as boneheaded and vain. A Vinny Barbarino figure. A dimwit with an eye on the mirror, squaring his jaw and checking his hairline. And nonsensically orating.
This version of Biden—let’s call him New Parody Biden—is also charming. That’s what’s most striking about it. He’s emotional and vain and likes attention, but he’s childish and thus not very scheming. He seems to be trivial and light and silly, which makes him decidedly unscary. He’s basically Dick Cheney’s opposite.
The idea that Biden is cool and dumb has occasioned a whole new set of jokes about him, ones that are actually better for the vice president’s image than previous parodies were.
Once, long ago, Parody Biden was a plagiarist. The Biden jokes of 25 years ago portrayed the presidential also-ran as a parrot.
“And so the rabbi says, ‘Goodbye, Bupkis!’ and Joe Biden says, ‘Goodbye, Bupkis!’”* (*Not a real Biden joke.)
In law school in the’60s, where he graduated near the bottom of his class, Biden indeed plagiarized a law review article for a class paper. In the ’80s, he stole other politicians’ work for political speeches. When he was caught, he played dumb about the mechanics of citation—classic plagiarist move.
Decades later, the plagiarism scandals forgotten, Biden was instead lampooned as a gaffe machine—a Tourettesy type short on self-control. Jimmy Fallon riffed on this iteration of Old Parody Biden: "Joe Biden accidentally revealed the location of the Vice President's top secret bunker. The guy can't help it. But he did apologize. He said: 'I am so sorry for the mistake. The launch code is 85334. It will never happen again. It will never happen again. My Gmail password is robot23. What am I doing? The house key is under the plant near the doorstep.'"
This line of jokes came after Biden, during the beginning of his presidential campaign in 2007, unselfconsciously called Barack Obama “the first mainstream African American”—presidential candidate, presumably—“who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
Calling a black person “articulate” was memorably identified as weird and racist by Chris Rock in 1996. The “bright and clean” stuff was even more disturbing. And Biden—not Parody Biden—once told an Indian American, with a straight face, “You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.” He added, “I’m not joking.”
This version of Biden recently re-emerged when he told supporters in Virginia, some of them black, that Mitt Romney “is going to put y’all back in chains.” The “y’all” was disgraceful, as far as this listener is concerned. After this tweaked-out racism, Matt Latimer wrote in The Daily Beast that Biden should step down as vice president—and that he absolutely would be forced to, were he a Republican.
But somehow even Real Biden’s tweaked-out racism has become bundled into the New Parody Biden’s erratic “charm.” Sometimes, as in this collector’s-item “Onion” piece from 2009, New Parody Biden—shown shirtless and tattooed, cleaning condom wrappers out of his 1981 Trans Am—lands on the goofball ladies-man end of things.
Maybe he reminds us of our dads. Joe Biden is 69, but the idea that he’s an out-of-it charmer—all hair-band ’80s heart with no indie-rock 2012 brains—seems to endear him to a Gen-X audience. New Parody Biden might even help the ticket. Politico praised Biden’s charisma not long ago, going so far as to say that the balding, error-prone almost-septuagenarian is “bringing sexy back.”
Biden’s impolitic spiels recall two lovable racist-sexists: David Brent in the original British “Office” and Nigel Tufnel in “Spinal Tap.” (“What’s wrong with being sexy?” “Sexist.” “Oh.”) You get the sense that these older—albeit fictional—white guys are trying extremely hard to toe a politically correct line that they can’t entirely see. The repressed returns with loony force.
In the real world, I’m not sure if that’s charming or scary. But it’s certainly familiar to anyone who’s been around white men of Biden’s age.
So which parody of Biden hits closest to home? Is he a plagiarist, a gaffe machine, or a blowhard greaser with a Trans Am? I’m going to take a stab at a diagnosis. Biden is a plagiarist. And a poor student. He doesn’t hear tone, and he snatches material away from better minds, stripping it of context and proper attribution.
Biden absorbs broadly disseminated gags from popular culture—from Chris Rock standup, from “The Simpsons”—and then unironically regurgitates them as empirical observations. Thus, he makes gaffes.
And yet, there’s something about posing, vain, cheat-on-the-test bozos trying to seem serious and grown-up that is funny-cool. Especially when they’re not in charge. Now that he’s not president, George W. Bush is funny-cool in that same way.
At almost 70 and consigned to a role without much real power, Biden has come into his funny-cool thing. Man, does he pose a lot. And there’s nothing funnier than posing.