Lining up pre-scripted ‘zingers’

Pierce Hawthorne tried memorizing "zingers," too.
Pierce Hawthorne tried memorizing "zingers," too.
Associated Press

The good thing about debates, at least in theory, is that they’re unscripted. Campaigns may go to great lengths to keep events “highly polished and hyper-scripted,” but debates are intended to have some spontaneity – the candidates don’t know what they’ll be asked, so they’ll be required to think on their feet.

That said, the effort to drain the debates of their spontaneity is well underway.

Mr. Romney’s team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August. […]

Mr. Obama is not particularly fluid in sound bites, so his team is aiming for a workmanlike performance like his speech at the Democratic convention.

As a tactical matter, I have no idea why Team Romney would consider it worthwhile to tell reporters in advance that the candidate has memorized “zingers” written by his staff.

Regardless, the strategy itself strikes me as a mistake. There was an episode of “Community” in the first season in which Pierce Hawthorne was going to watch a movie with some friends. He desperately wanted to impress them, so he rented the movie, hired some writers, and memorized a bunch of “zingers” in the hopes of dazzling the room with his wit.

If you saw the show, you know the result – the “zingers” came across as obviously forced. Pierce hoped to prove how clever he is by memorizing lines written by others and then mechanically repeating them, but he ended up doing the opposite.

Romney is inviting the exact same problem. By announcing the plan in advance – “Romney = Zingers!” – the campaign is only inviting eye-rolling when the candidate forces the lines into the debate. No one will be impressed with Romney’s quick wit because we’ve already been told (a) the zingers were written by others; (b) Romney’s been forced to memorize them; and (c) he’s been “practicing” his spontaneous delivery for over a month.

I’m sure the little quips will be delightfully clever, but I can’t help but wonder how many viewers will be left laughing at, not with, the candidate.