Argument

‘It’s OK, You’re Allowed to Laugh.’

The incredibly awkward comedy stylings of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

It’s not easy for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to make light of world events. Every day, he is required to comment with solemnity and pathos on the world’s afflictions: a car bombing in Iraq or Afghanistan, a bloody crackdown on protesters in Syria, a flood in Pakistan, an earthquake in Haiti, or the prospects of a nuclear war with North Korea. But as the holiday season approaches, bringing a host of year-end anniversary events, Ban gets an opportunity to crack wise now and again.

Which begs a serious question: How funny is the secretary general?

I scoured the record for a collection of Ban’s most memorable comic moments. Frankly, most of the jokes are on the corny side, and I had trouble deciphering a few of the punch lines. But the spectacle of a man with barely a single strand of comedic DNA in his system and plagued with bad timing playing for laughs has produced some humorous moments. "I’m going to be a little bit funny this evening so I hope you will bear with me," Ban warned in a typical disclaimer during the U.N. Correspondents Association’s awards banquet last year.

Ban treaded a similar path this year, warning the audience to brace for "a real disaster: me trying to be funny." Actually, it was one of Ban’s more successful ventures into comedy, complete with a video vignette depicting the 67-year old diplomat having a wild night out on the town, skateboarding along New York City’s 1st Avenue, and accidentally transmitting online photos of himself to leaders of the G-20.

In one skit, Ban responds to the global financial crisis by moonlighting as a short order U.N. cook and seeking alternative sources of revenue on a Home Shopping Network channel. With the number 1-800-UN4Sale blinking on the screen, Ban tries to sell a U.N. coffee mug, a U.N. resolution, and a bag of construction debris from the renovation of the New York headquarters. When that doesn’t work, he offers to auction UNICEF’s headquarters and a lunch with Associated Press’s fetching U.N. reporter Edie Lederer. Following a long riff on bulls — Ban received a gift of one from South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir — the U.N. chief took issue with criticism that his reform efforts have a lot like his new pet: "too big, too slow, and full of waste."

"That’s bull," Ban insisted. "That’s bullshit."

When Ban, fresh out of the Korean Foreign Ministry, began his first term as secretary general, he had to fight the impression that he was a bit too bland for the world’s top diplomatic job. He quickly set out to charm the press corps with a rendition of "Santa Clause Is Coming to Town." Only, in this version, it’s Ban who is coming to town. He gets points here for trying, but it’s clear that the U.N. chief could stand to have a better command over his material.

For a high-flying diplomat like Ban, a bit of local comic humor is always a good way to soften up a foreign audience. On a recent trip to New Zealand, Ban invoked the country’s roots — declaring in the native Maori He waka eke noa — "we are all in this canoe together," and comparing the national sporting obsession to his own line of work.

"Rugby scrums confuse anyone who doesn’t know the game. So do U.N. debates," he said. "And sometimes they can look very similar! In rugby, you lose teeth. In diplomacy, you lose face."

On May 13, 2010, Ban introduced himself to young participants at a model U.N. conference with this line: "I must admit, I was a little confused when I walked in. You are all so polished and wonderful to look at. I thought you could be models, and I thought that I was at New York Fashion Week. Perhaps that’s what Model U.N. really means! It’s OK. You are allowed to laugh."

I guess you had to be there.

Ban usually lightens up at the annual fundraiser for the U.N. Foundation, an advocacy group formed with a $1 billion contribution from Ted Turner — and this year was no different. With the rock band Linkin Park in attendance, Ban said: "I am proud to be the first secretary general in the United Nations history to have had a Facebook townhall meeting with Linkin Park. But, I must admit. I wasn’t always so hip. Some years ago, my daughter said, ‘I really like Linkin Park.’ I said ‘Linkin Park? Is he Korean?’"

French is the U.N.’s second working language, and Ban has struggled to master it. Every year, at the annual meeting of the Francophonie — a gathering of 56 French-speaking governments — Ban has sought to disarm the audience with some jokes in French. "This is the third time I have attended a francophone reception and I still don’t know exactly what Francophonie means," he said.

Reflecting on the French phrase for the good life, l’art de vivre, Ban said that he sometimes asks his friends what "art de vivre" means, "and they tell me you have to live it to know it. In my opinion, my friends are trying to make me understand that I need to get out a bit more."

This past summer, Ban joined Olympic track legend Carl Lewis at a ceremony at U.N. headquarters, switching on a one-year countdown clock to the July 27, 2012, opening of the London Olympic Games. "Our challenge is what to call this remarkable timepiece," Ban said. "We all know of Big Ben … someone suggested that … since this will be placed in the United Nations, we might perhaps name it Big Ban." Ok, on to the next one.

In fact, using his name as a play on words is a recurring device in Ban’s comedic repertoire. In a November 2008, address before Al Jazeera’s children’s television network in Doha, Qatar, Ban said: "Asalam u Aleykom! Hi, everyone! It is really great to be here. I know you were expecting someone with an unusual name, but I hope you are not too disappointed that I am Ban Ki-moon and not Po-ké-mon."

2010 — the year of Wikileaks and bed bugs in the U.N. press section — provided great material for comedy. Ban mined it for laughs at the U.N. Correspondents Association dinner, making light of the disclosure that the State Department had instructed diplomats to collect all manner of biometric information from foreign officials.

In one video skit, Ban revealed his private biometric information to a room filled with several U.S. diplomats. As Rice watched from the audience, Ban flashed his platinum Am-Ex card up to the camera, as his drivers license number, his U.N. identification number, and his Netflix account scolled across the screen — as did the disclosure of the existence of a tattoo on an unspecified location of his body and the somewhat assuring fact that he wears "boxers not briefs." It’s worth watching.

Less clever was his address to the governing council of the International Telecommunications Union in a video message. "I am very pleased to send greetings to you. But maybe, instead of a video, I should have sent a text message."

But give the man credit: Ban likes to bridge the gap between the U.N.’s fusty diplomatic world and young people. In an Oct. 2008 speech before the United Nations Association, Ban took inspiration from rap star and producer, Jay-Z, who was being honored for his humanitarian works, and delivered a rap homage to the association’s then-president, William Leurs. "I will try to be a bit courageous and creative myself," Ban said. "Since one of the honorees is my man Jay-Z, I think I’ll try his language tonight. It is a foreign language to me, but one which I love, so please bear with me."

Global Classrooms are a cinch

With the help of Merrill Lynch

When you put the org in Google

Partnerships go truly gloooobal.

There is hope for Earth’s salvation

With the Cisneros Foundation

With Jay-Z there’s double strife

Life for children and water for life

Human health will get ahead

With the valiant work of (RED)

For the poor and doing good

Stays the job of Robin Hood

U.N. stays on the front burner

Thanks to our champ Ted Turner

And whole revolutions stem

From the work of UNIFEM.

But tonight my special shout-out

Goes to one I can’t do without

We have travelled up and down

Frisco, Atlanta, Chicago town

Yes, the king of all the doers

Is my trusty friend Bill Luers

Bill, I cannot say goodbye

So take the floor and take a bow.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Ambassador Bill Luers.

Painful.

Ban Ki-moon tried out his Japanese before a group of students and faculty at Hokkaido University: "Saeki Hiroshi Gakucho, Kyushokuin to gakusei no minasama ohayogozaimasu. Watashi wa Kokuren Jimusocho no Ban Ki-moon desu. Minasama ni omenikakarete koei desu."

"I hope my [Japanese-speaking] U.N. staff has understood what I said."

Weather jokes always get the laughs, right? Here’s Ban explaining to a Chicago audience at the Economic Club of Chicago how he nearly missed the first visit to Chicago because of a snow storm. "My plane was canceled last night. I was so disappointed. The first visit by any secretary general to Chicago might have been canceled altogether. What worried me most was that one of my senior advisers came to me and said "Look, Mr. Secretary-General, we have a big problem. You better give up. Once it snows in Chicago, it may continue until springtime."

What about a good old lawyer joke? Here’s Ban delivering the Otto L. Walter Lecture at New York Law School in October of this year:"I believe that one of the very difficult audiences to address [are] lawyers. That is why I am here with my Legal Counsel to defend me! If there is going to be any controversies, legal troubles, I hope, Patricia O’Brien, you will protect me."

"Perhaps when Judge Judy decides she has had enough of her reality show, she can become a United Nations mediator to deal with our global reality!" Zing.

Last October in New York, Ban gave remarks at the unveiling of the official portrait of his predecessor Kofi Annan: "To the artist, John Keane, thank you for a wonderful likeness. It is not easy to paint about the United Nations, in fact. Our days might sometimes appear as surreal as a Dali, or as seemingly chaotic as a Jackson Pollock. You have done a marvelous job. Let me also say to all those who ever dreamed of nailing a secretary general to the wall, today is your day!"

And, for your listening pleasure, one final gem: In recent months, Ban, who was reelected this summer to serve a second five-year term as U.N. chief, likes to joke about the lukewarm support he receives at home. This is clearly one of Ban’s favorite jokes, and he’s used it more than once. Speaking in August at the Denver University Korbel School’s annual dinner, Ban recalled "I was deeply honoured that the General Assembly supported my re-election. The vote was unanimous: 100 percent. But then a Korean reporter asked my wife how she would rate my work as a husband and father, she said, ‘Well, I’d give him 70 percent.’ So I lodged a protest — a strong protest. I thought my daughter might support me. But she said, ‘70 percent sounds rather generous.’ So I have decided that my first priority for my second term is not foreign affairs — it is domestic policy!"

Ladies and germs, he’ll be here all week. Make that five more years.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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