Playing against type, Chicago mayor deploys humor in coronavirus fight

By Mark Guarino 

April 8, 2020 at 7:00 a.m. CDT

CHICAGO — This city has produced legendary comic actors over the years, from Bill Murray and John Belushi to Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey. And now, in a time of pandemic, Lori Lightfoot.

Yes, MAYOR Lori Lightfoot.

In the past two weeks, the typically somber leader has turned to humor to emphasize that violating her stay-at-home order has serious, even deadly consequences in the coronavirus era. Through satirical videos on Twitter, memes on Facebook and even a DJ party thrown on her Instagram account, she has played against type in a way that is drawing many residents’ notice and their seeming appreciation.

That’s no easy feat given the apocalyptic pronouncements and headlines. While Illinois is no New York in casualties, the state already has recorded more than 13,000 cases of covid-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — and 380 deaths. Modeling indicates that the peak in Illinois will hit about April 20.

Messaging experts like John Greening applaud Lightfoot’s strategy — funny in a light, even self-deprecating way — for reaching people who otherwise wouldn’t pay attention.

“It’s a positive tactic,” said Greening, a former global account director for Anheuser-Busch who now teaches branding at Northwestern University. “The issue isn’t that the news isn’t comprehensible, but that it’s so negative that a lot of people don’t want to be bothered with it. This is a way to get into their heads. She’s making the message more appealing by taking these more contemporary tactics.”

Lightfoot’s shift in approach started in late March after she shut down Lake Michigan’s beaches, adjacent parks, bike trails and other public areas because Chicagoans had been disregarding Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s statewide stay-at-home order.

Almost immediately, memes of the mayor guarding the lakefront and other locations started showing up on the Instagram account @WheresLightfoot.

One week later, the Internet is still filling up with social media images of Lightfoot’s scowl clearing out crowds. She’s surveilling people behind the bushes of a home, standing atop hot dog stands, guarding “Cloud Gate” (a.k.a. The Bean) in Millennium Park and plunked in the middle of an empty Michigan Avenue. In all locations, now devoid of people, she looks deadly serious.

Some of the memes have taken her powers much further. One shows the mayor clearing the table of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” and removing the Parisian park strollers in Georges Seurat’s signature painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Another has her guarding the yellow-bricked entrance to the Kingdom of Oz. “We’re off to see the Wizard,” Dorothy and gang explain. “The hell you are!” Lightfoot snaps back.

Even the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board got into the spirit Tuesday, placing Lightfoot above the masthead so she could gaze down on their editorial about the importance of social distancing.

On Twitter, Lightfoot has responded in kind. She released a video showing the mayor camped out at home. In various scenes, she bakes, decorates, dunks a toy basketball and watches a rerun of the 2005 White Sox World Series championship. The concluding message of each: “Stay home, save lives.” (She also sings it while strumming a guitar.)

Kelly Leonard, a longtime creative executive at the Second City, the legendary improvisational theater that has launched the careers of many of Chicago’s most famous comic actors, characterized Lightfoot’s use of comedy as “brilliant” for how it engages people.

“She’s fighting a virus with a virus because comedy is also viral and humor is contagious,” he said Monday. “The idea that she would pick a medium by which she could use the biggest megaphone was smart.”

The tone is in sharp contrast with that of her counterparts in other big cities on the East and West coasts, where covid-19 hit earlier and harder. Most have stayed only on serious messaging, as has Lightfoot in her daily briefings. On Monday, she was strictly business in discussing the vast racial disparity emerging with local infections. African Americans account for 68 percent of the city’s deaths and just over half of its confirmed cases — despite making up just 30 percent of Chicago’s population. “This is a call-to-action moment for all of us,” she announced solemnly at a news conference.

Online, however, is different. There, her meme avatar’s glaring eyes, furrowed brow and monochromatic suit do not appear on a City Hall podium but loom from a tree branch like Batman instead.

Leonard says the sharp divergence from Lightfoot’s public image is what makes this approach so effective.

“This is not someone who presents themselves as a funny character. … She really is surprising people, which is why everyone is delighting in it. It came out of nowhere, and the best comedy is the comedy of surprise,” he said.

Lightfoot said in an interview Tuesday that her office was “very intentional about the strategy” but did not expect the organic, viral response. “What this moment tells us is people are in a situation where they want something that makes them smile,” she said.

Beyond using the mayor as a foil, her office reached out to the Second City to request that some of its alumni record videos to reinforce the social distancing message. Steve Carell, Jane Lynch, Bonnie Hunt and Joel Murray have already responded, Leonard said.

Is there a final punchline to this campaign — or does Lightfoot risk getting yanked offstage with a big hook?

Like covid-19 itself, the future is uncertain.

“It’s a beautiful sunshine-y day,” she said Tuesday. “And we’re going to be in this for weeks to come. We need something to rally around. I believe it’s really helping people get through it together.”

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