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.”