Shortly after Lori Lightfoot was elected mayor, I wrote that with her fedoras, her short stature, her intense eyes, and her baggy suits, she was going to be a cartoonist’s dream

Turns out, that was a 20th Century conceit. Lightfoot is a memelord's dream.

That photo of her scowling with a folder at a press conference, cuffs puddling around her ankles, has been photoshopped onto a sawhorse barricading the lakefront, in front of the Bean, and onto a Wheel of Fortune puzzle reading ST-Y T-E F–K -T -O-E. After Lightfoot ordered the lakefront closed, someone inserted her into George Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, with all the bathers gone:


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The memes play off Lightfoot’s persona as a no-nonsense ex-prosecutor, but her appearance — wearing a suit two sizes too big and Keds — is what makes them funny. Lightfoot’s opponent in last year’s election, Toni Preckwinkle, is an even-less-nonsense woman, but Preckwinkle is nearly six feet tall; seeing her stand in front of all those landmarks would just look intimidating. Rahm Emanuel is short, but he’s too prickly and profane to serve as the city’s lovable mascot.

It’s a credit to Lightfoot’s leadership instincts that she seems to realize this, and is leaning into her sober image as part of a campaign to keep Chicagoans indoors — the most important civic project of her mayoralty so far. Last week, her @chicagosmayor Twitter account shared a photo of a foreboading Lightfoot cutout in front of a Portage Park bungalow, with the tag, “OK, who did this?”

On Monday, she held a press conference at an empty Soldier Field to promote her “We Are Not Playing” initiative, in which local pro athletes record videos encouraging Chicagoans to stay at home. The title is a play on the fact that all the games have been canceled, but also on “I’m not playing,” or what a mother would say when she orders you to get the hell inside the house while wielding a slipper in her hand.

“I think this is a really difficult time,” Lightfoot recently told the Tribune. “People are afraid. The stress levels are high. In any difficult time, I think we’ve got to have a sense of balance. Humor is a big part of it. I’ve actually enjoyed [the memes]. We’ve acted out a few in my household at night.”

Then there was Lightfoot’s “Stay Home, Save Lives” video. Shot in her Logan Square home, it shows the mayor baking, fluffing the pillows on her couch, and watching a re-run of the White Sox’s 2005 World Series victory, all over a corny sitcom soundtrack. The video made the rounds on CNN and in the Washington Post. (The one bit that didn’t quite land: Lightfoot as the voice of reason, telling a friend, “Debbie, getting your roots done is not essential.” This week, Lightfoot was criticized for bringing a hairstylist into the office for a trim.)

Humor is all about incongruity. No one expected Lightfoot to be funny, so the fact that she’s trying is funny in itself.

At its base, leadership is about making people want to do what you want them to do, rather than forcing them to do it. No mayor has ever asked Chicagoans to make the sacrifices Lightfoot is asking of us. Not even Prohibition could stop Chicago from drinking, but Lightfoot just announced she’s ending alcohol sales at 9 p.m. If turning herself into a comic figure is what it takes to get the city’s attention, that doesn’t make her a cartoon character, but a smart leader.

Lightfoot’s media strategy is also a good complement to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, whose sober daily briefings have shown him to be much more serious than we expected. As the governor, in charge of the entire state, Pritzker is taking care of the logistics. As the mayor, closer to the people, Lightfoot is handling the human work. On Tuesday, Lightfoot even drove around West Rogers Park, which has the most COVID-19 infections of any Chicago neighborhood, yelling at crowds on the sidewalk to break it up. Logistics and people — ventilators and crowd control — are equally important duties in ending this crisis, but they benefit from different approaches, and different personalities.

I never expected to write, “Lori Lightfoot has a sense of humor.” The only time I heard her laugh on the campaign trail was when I asked the Michigan grad if she could root for Michigan State in the NCAA basketball Final Four. (Answer: yes.) But Lori Lightfoot has a sense of humor — and it’s helping us get through one of the worst crises any Chicago mayor has ever faced.