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Obama Between Ferns: Funny Or Flop?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer Jimi Izrael, with us from Cleveland, Ohio. Rey Junco, associate professor of library science at Purdue University joins us from West Lafayette, Indiana. In Boston, Massachusetts health care consultant and contributor to National Review magazine, Neil Minkoff joins us. Here in Washington, D.C. in our studios here we have Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation magazine. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas. Welcome to the shop.


IZRAEL: How we doing?

DAVE ZIRIN: Pretty good.

REY JUNCO: All right.


MINKOFF: How's it going?

IZRAEL: I'm making it work, bro. I'm making it work. Let's get things started.

ZIRIN: Yeah, let's do it.

IZRAEL: OK, wow. Somebody's caffeinated. Zack Galifianakis recently welcomed a special guest to his internet comedy show "Between Two Ferns." Guess who? President Obama went on to promote The Affordable Care Act. Can we drop that clip, please?


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The point is that a lot of young people, they think they're invincible.

ZACH GALIFIANAKIS: Did you say invisible? Because...

OBAMA: No, no.

GALIFIANAKIS: ...I just think, like, that's (unintelligible)?

OBAMA: Not invisible, invincible.


OBAMA: Meaning that they don't think they can get hurt.

GALIFIANAKIS: I'm just saying that nobody could be invisible, if you had said invisible.

OBAMA: I understand that.


IZRAEL: That was great stuff. It's good to hear the President can deadpan. I thought it was hilarious. Galifianakis, you know, he is known for his deadpan humor and commander in chief got some of his own barbs in. And let's drop another clip, please.


GALIFIANAKIS: It must kind of stink, though, that you can't run, you know, three times. You know?

OBAMA: No. Actually, I think it's a good idea. You know, if I ran a third time, it'd be sort of like doing a third "Hangover" movie. It didn't really work out very well, did it?


MARTIN: That was harsh. I'm sorry, that was harsh.


MARTIN: Harsh.

ZIRIN: I love it.

IZRAEL: You know what, not everybody on the Right was laughing. Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly said it was desperate to use comedic website to get people to enroll in health care. You know, Bill, he needs to just fall back. It's not like JFK didn't do Jack Paar back in the day. And Governor Ronald Reagan appeared on "Sonny and Cher" in 1976. And of course, President Gerald Ford took a turn on SNL. And let's not even talk about Bill Clinton and his boxers or briefs in 1992. Neil Minkoff, I hear you lean right. That's the word around the shop. Did the president look desperate to you?

MINKOFF: You found out? Oh, my God.

IZRAEL: I know, right?

MINKOFF: I've been exposed.

MARTIN: That whole National Review thing, kind of a clue.

IZRAEL: Oh, darn.

MINKOFF: So this is just the reality of the media, right? The media is highly splintered. You know, I actually ran into an executive from satellite radio. This is a huge issue they have, too, which is they can't capture the millennials at any, you know, to tune into a channel, to tune into a time. The millennials do everything on demand, on the web. This was a very smart marketing attempt to capture that millennial audience and to redirect them into thinking about health care. I thought the president came off as very funny, very self-deprecating. He was really in on the joke. I found it very humanizing. I did not have any issue with this. I think it's just the direction the media's going and the modern reality that we need to address.

MARTIN: Can I just - Neil, but can we - wanted to ask you why do you think so many of your fellow conservatives had such a big problem with it, or at least that they said that they did? I mean, Bill O'Reilly was not the only one. I mean, Kathleen Parker wrote about it. I mean...

MINKOFF: No. It's because it's new and it's different. And on some level, I understand the concern that it seems small. I understand the concern that it seems somehow desperate to, you know - I think the concern was, well, we haven't gotten the millennials to sign up for health care, so if we have to put up with the guy from "The Hangover," we'll put up with the guy from "The Hangover." I don't think that reflects the modern media, though, and the way that people under the age of 30 interact with it. It's a departure from the norm and I think that's hard for some people.

ZIRIN: I have another theory.


ZIRIN: Yeah, I have another theory.

IZRAEL: Dave Zirin, get in here, bro.

ZIRIN: Yeah, I just have another theory about the reaction. I mean, one of it is obviously the knee-jerk. You know, if Obama does it, it's bad and we're going to figure out a way to criticize it. I actually appreciate Neil just being honest 'cause I thought it was objectively funny. No matter what your politics are, there was a lot of good writing in that segment. But I think some of it comes from an existential frustration on the Right that they don't have funny people who can do what Zack Galifianakis did with Barack Obama. Clearly, Galifianakis is supporting the president. I don't think I did his name right, but you hear me.


ZIRIN: Now - but here's what I'm talking about. When you had Stephen Colbert butt heads with George W. Bush, it was about mocking George W. Bush. It raises a question - where are the comedians on the Right? Where are the funny people who are actually connecting with these millennials? You don't see them out there.

IZRAEL: He said, butthead.

MINKOFF: And that's an interesting point 'cause if you look at what Ted Cruz did in his speech last week, it was hysterical. He did a very self-deprecating, really funny speech, but he needed a foil to work against in a similar situation.

MARTIN: What does Rey think? Rey Junco, what do you think?

JUNCO: I thought it was great, and I think, you know, I really loved that the president not only has a sense of humor but, you know, is smart enough to, you know, execute it well and poke fun at himself. I agree. I mean, you know, our last president tried a lot and he wasn't very good at it.

MARTIN: Rey, can you speak - one of the reasons that we were happy you could participate in the conversation is, well, one of your research specialties is the whole question of the internet as an educational tool. The internet as a society.

JUNCO: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: How it affects the society.

JUNCO: Yeah.

MARTIN: So I wanted to ask you to take Dave's point as like - what do you attribute the reaction to, the negative reaction? I mean, some people think, oh - because you often hear people complain about the president. On the Right, the complaint is about matters of style.

JUNCO: Right.

MARTIN: And I just wonder if matters of style is masking matters of philosophy. Or is it a cultural thing or is it an age thing? Is it like a generational thing? People have some - particularly given what Jimi said about how previous presidents, republican presidents and democratic have used pop-culture vehicles to make a point. What do you think the beef is about?

JUNCO: You know, I'm going to get all conspiracy theorist on you and say the...


JUNCO: Oh, yeah. Here it come. That the health care site got a 40 percent increase in traffic one day to the next after the video was released. I think the Right would hate that.

ZIRIN: Simple as success breeds criticism.

JUNCO: Hey, that's right.

IZRAEL: Sock it to me.

JUNCO: Haters going...

ZIRIN: Haters going to hate.

JUNCO: You know it.

ZIRIN: As I believe Abraham Lincoln once said, haters going to hate.

JUNCO: I think he did.

IZRAEL: Almost certainly.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by professor Rey Junco, that's who was speaking just now, writer Jimi Izrael, sports editor, Dave Zirin, and health care consultant, Neil Minkoff. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK, well, we're going to do a short sports lightning round. Now you know - you guys know I live in Cleveland. I've kind of given up sports and tears for Lent. But you guys know what time it is. It's March Madness. Dave...


IZRAEL: ...Selection Sunday is this weekend. Dare I even ask for your picks? Yes, I do dare.

ZIRIN: There's no real point in asking for anybody's picks. Look, I could take a rooster, feed him tequila and have him just touch places on the bracket, and he will do as better as some of these so-called, quote-unquote, experts of which I wouldn't even deem call myself. It is a random crapshoot. You do it by numbers. Pick some 12 seeds to beat some 5 seeds. Cross your fingers. Call it a day. Hope against hope and nobody knows nothing. It's Chinatown, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Can we get that - can we get that rooster to...

MINKOFF: I want to watch that.

IZRAEL: ...Can we get the rooster to coach the Cavs?

MARTIN: Nice, nice.

IZRAEL: Rey Junco...

MINKOFF: Leave my ground alone.

IZRAEL: ...You're a fellow internet studies - you're a fellow of internet studies at Harvard. Do you use digital methology - methodology to kind of build your bracket, or do you just kind of wing it?

JUNCO: You know, that was funny 'cause I go to - I assign each team a number. And then I go to random.org and I pull some random numbers and I just throw them in the brackets that way 'cause my Gators - my Gators are going to suck this year. So I'm just going to use the random method.

MARTIN: So basically, we're all standing up for love over logic on this. Is that...

JUNCO: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: Can I...

JUNCO: Except for Rey.

MARTIN: ...Get a witness on this, please? No.

JUNCO: Well, I guess. No, not even me? OK.

ZIRIN: Or pretty uniforms. That's one way to do it.


ZIRIN: Or mascots. Like if Coastal Carolina was playing, they're the chanticleers, I would have them going all the way just 'cause they're the chanticleers.

IZRAEL: What's Dr. Neil got to say?

MINKOFF: So honestly, I haven't been paying attention to official March Madness this year. I am completely tied up in my wife's alma mater. Tufts is about about to advance to the round of 16 in the Division III women's tournament. And that is where all of my attention has been. We've been to most of the games, and it has been a great experience for my daughter.

JUNCO: That's awesome.

IZRAEL: All right.

MARTIN: Did your wife play? Did she play or is she just a fan?

MINKOFF: She played in high school, but she was at one point the head of the alumni sports group or whatever they call it - the Jumbos at Tufts. And so we jumped on the bandwagon really early. They had an undefeated season, and it has been a fantastic ride. And it feels really pure. There's no TV timeouts, nobody's on scholarship, nobody's trying to reach the pros. It's just about the love of the game, and it's fantastic.

MARTIN: Dave, can I...

IZRAEL: Speaking...

MARTIN: Yeah, can I just ask Dave this?

IZRAEL: Yeah, go ahead.

MARTIN: I just want to ask you this briefly. Do you feel that, are we getting close to - parity's such a lame - it doesn't really mean anything - but does - are we kind of getting close to the point where women's sports - people are paying as close attention to women's basketball as they are to men's or just nowhere near it?

ZIRIN: It's nowhere near if you look at the raw numbers. But I am so impressed, particularly - once again, in the internet age where people can really pick and choose their interests - the ferocious fan base that does exist for women athletics, particularly women's basketball. You know, John Wooden, the great Wizard of Westwood, a decade before he passed on he said that he preferred the women's game to the men's game because of the style of play - the emphasis on passing, the emphasis on teamwork, the emphasis on like the Knicks in the early '70s. All five people touch the ball on an offensive possession. And you can see why that has an appeal.

MARTIN: All right, good. Jimi, back to you.

IZRAEL: All right, well, know what? Before we move off the court, let's talk about the pro game. Now get your hankies out 'cause the L.A. - Los Angeles Lakers, you know, they announced that Kobe Bryant will be out for the rest of the season with a knee injury. Here's what he said about sitting on the sidelines. Drop the tape, please.


KOBE BRYANT: The biggest part at this stage of your career is really just body maintenance and doing whatever you can to, you know, get the body strong enough and healthy enough so that the little knick-knack injuries don't bother you for the next season. So, you know, when you have seven months to prepare, you get a chance to really ramp things up.

IZRAEL: Oy vey. Neil, should the Black Mamba just hang them up?

MINKOFF: So I think that the Black - I lived through the years when Larry Bird was breaking down, when I was coming into my own as a sports fan. And Larry Bird was, you know, he'd come in for a few minutes and then go, literally, lie down on the side of the court and then come in for a few minutes. It's incredibly dispiriting. But I think Kobe has an incredible opportunity here to follow in the footsteps of Bill Walton or Grant Hill and become the most important sixth man in the NBA.

He is an underrated passer because he's always had a shoot-first mentality. But if he becomes a sixth man and takes care of himself, he's looking at extending his career a few more years. It could arguably be the best career of anybody not named Bill Russell. And he could end up with more rings than MJ and maybe more points than Kareem. It's a mindset. Can he be the sixth man?

MARTIN: See, I don't...

IZRAEL: Tell us how you really feel.

MARTIN: Yeah, I don't get this mindset of people telling other people when to stop doing their job. I don't get that. I don't get that.

JUNCO: Yeah, I agree. This is Rey. I totally agree. I think he's great. And is this an age thing? I mean, what are we talking about here?


JUNCO: Ageism?

MARTIN: What do you think?

JUNCO: Is it able-ism?

IZRAEL: Yeah, I mean...

ZIRIN: It's financialism because right now...

MARTIN: All right, Dave. All right, Dave.

ZIRIN: ...He just signed. He's going to be the highest-paid player in the NBA for the next two seasons coming off the most devastating injury any kind of basketball player could possibly face.

JUNCO: Yeah.


ZIRIN: The idea that the Lakers could assemble talent around a guy in his late 30s coming off this kind of injury and they could compete for a championship I think is absolutely ludicrous. Kobe Bryant also, the idea of him accepting a sixth man position, I mean, this is a guy who I think he listens to Kanye West records and thinks it's like life advice. Like, I think he...


ZIRIN: I can just see him walking around like, I keep it 300, like the Romans. I mean, there's a level of intensity there for him that's above and beyond anything and everything. He's going out on his shield like Larry Bird, and it's not going to be pretty. You know, it's like that old expression, you know, if - live long enough to be a villain or die a hero. He's going to live long enough to be a villain in the NBA.

MARTIN: So you think he should leave now?

ZIRIN: No, I don't think - 'cause no, 'cause he's got 56 million reasons to stay for two more years.

MARTIN: I feel you. So, well, OK. But real quick on football. You wrote about - this is not small. But you wrote about former Miami Dolphin Jonathan Martin getting picked up by the San Francisco 49ers this week. People will remember that he walked away from the Dolphins midseason, reportedly, because of locker room bullying caused him to contemplate suicide. And I want to get your perspective on the 49ers picking him up. There were a lot of people who said that his career was over.

ZIRIN: You never want to play the oppression Olympics like is it harder to be African-American, immigrant, person of color, you know. But I'm starting to feel like, is it easier to be gay in the NFL or is it easier to have admitted mental health issues in the NFL? And what's so important about Jonathan Martin getting another chance is that seeing someone who's admitted to depression, he's admitted to thinking about doing self-harm. And the idea of that not being so taboo and him getting a second chance is very important.

MARTIN: Other thoughts on this?

MINKOFF: It's a great message.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Neil.

MINKOFF: I hate to say something positive about a Harbaugh brother, but he sent an unbelievable message here about what is - by bringing Martin in - 'cause he knows him. He coached him at Stanford. But bringing him in and saying, this is the kind of player I want to have. And that means the behavior, the way it was happening in Miami is not acceptable in my locker room. And sending that message across the NFL I think was just a huge step. And, God, I hate to say this, that was a great job by Harbaugh.

MARTIN: I know. Why are you - wait, why are you a Harbaugh hater? Just by - you're talking about Jim Harbaugh, coach of the 49ers. And he was formally coach at Stanford when Jonathan Martin went to school. So he does know him. But why - so why are you a Harbaugh hater?

MINKOFF: I think it's a...

MARTIN: All Harbaughs or just this one?

MINKOFF: Well, I don't like either of them and a lot of that has to do with just traditional Patriot's rivalries and, you know, being against the - going against his brother with the Ravens so many times and some stylistic things. I mean, there's some...

ZIRIN: The chinos?

MINKOFF: ...Certain whining on the sideline that is unbecoming, I think.

MARTIN: 'Cause that never happens, right? Jimi, you want to have a final thought on this?

IZRAEL: I got no thoughts on it. I think it's great. Why not? Give him a shot.

MARTIN: Rey, what about you?

JUNCO: I think it's great. I think it also sends a great message across the NFL that this is the kind of player he wants to have and that the behavior by the Dolphins isn't going to be tolerated.

MARTIN: Just final - Rey, can we get a final thought from you? It was a birthday shout-out to the World Wide Web.


MARTIN: It was 25 years ago this week that Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for what became the World Wide Web. And, Rey, can you - I mean, we don't have time to talk about all the ways that the World Wide Web has changed the world, but can you even imagine without it? I mean, give us just a final thought about it if you would.

JUNCO: Well, no. I couldn't imagine life without it or my research, for that matter. But I think that I would encourage people to think about what we want it to look like over the next 25 years. And to...

MARTIN: Like what? What do you want it to look like?

JUNCO: I want everybody to have access. I want there to be net neutrality. I want the - I want governments not to spy on us. I want - hey, you know...

ZIRIN: Now you're on the list for saying that.


JUNCO: Oh, man. I was on the list before. They got me pegged. They're like, yeah, keep an eye on Miami.

ZIRIN: Double-secret list.

MARTIN: I was going to ask what Jimi uses the web for, but I've changed my mind.


IZRAEL: Nice, Michel.

JUNCO: Actually, I know and can talk to you about it off air. So...

MARTIN: Don't even want to do that. Jimi Izrael is a writer. You can find his blog at JimiIzrael.com. Neil Minkoff is a health care consultant and contributor to the National Review. Rey Junco is an associate professor of library science at Purdue University and a fellow at Harvard University on internet and society issues. David Zirin is a sports editor for The Nation magazine and host of SiriusXM Radio's Edge of Sports Radio. Thank you all so much.

ZIRIN: Thank you.

JUNCO: Thanks everybody.

MINKOFF: Thanks, thanks.


MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes Store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.