Comics-in-Chief: Laughing With (and At) the Presidents – The Watershed Moment of Political Humor

Although the rural vernacular humor that dominated the 19th century lingered into the next one, this genre gradually dissipated, replaced more and more by an urban and urbane wit reflective of broader transformations in America’s landscape and culture. Alongside such geo-cultural shifts came humor with greater bite and more critical edge; indeed, practitioners of such had already been foreshadowed by satirists like Mark Twain, and this new breed continued with the likes of H.L. Mencken and the Marx Brothers into the early decades of the 20th century. The latter also showed us how political humor might be adapted from page to screen, the arrival of radio and film providing new media for alternative forms and forums of humor expression beyond the capabilities of speeches and newspaper editorials.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took full advantage of the new communication channels, particularly the radio in his “fireside chats”, where his reassuring voice and warm wit quelled the anxieties of a nation suffering through the Great Depression. One humorist who used the new media (while still drawing from a heartland humor familiar to the American masses) for populist effect was Will Rogers. His homespun wit offered nostalgia for an increasingly disappearing, seemingly simpler America, while it also ushered presidential humor into a new age where the gap between the leadership and the led grew ever narrower.

Will Rogers dominated American political humor through the first three decades of the twentieth century, despite his style being decidedly old-fashioned. With a tone and intent that were never offensive, the “ropin’ fool” (as he was known) just made people feel good and that included the many presidents that he ribbed along the way. Rogers built bridges: between comedian and president, comedian and citizen, and citizen and president. In the process, he transformed the nature of subsequent presidential humor; arguably, by closing gaps and fostering intimacy and empathy between various factions he also altered the nature and practices of democracy itself. No longer, after Rogers, could presidents appear as too remote or superior, and no longer could they escape the scrutiny of the common man.

Rogers, who hailed from Oklahoma, had inherited the southwestern humor popular in the late 19th century; this style privileged common sense frontier values, anecdotal constructs, and a folksy vernacular voice. His arrival on the national scene in 1904 was a revelation, as he thrust both himself and political humor into the spotlight as none had done before. His ubiquity thereafter—in print, on stage, on screen, and on radio—transformed humor into a public service, for not only did he become the nation’s premier entertainer but also its most beloved social commentator.

Strategically, Rogers first endeared through modest self-effacement then engaged through sometimes pointed critique, the former enabling the license for the latter. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover were all humbled by Rogers’ everyman advocacy, and his own 1928 mock presidential campaign on the “Anti-Bunk” ticket exposed the farcical nature of campaign politics as well as the manipulative practices of the two parties.

When, at the close of the campaign a reporter asked Candidate Rogers what the farmer needs, he responded, “He needs a punch in the jaw if he believes that either of the parties cares a damn about him after the election”. Asked about his image, he ironically added, “I hope there is [sic] some sane people who will appreciate dignity and not showmanship in their choice of the presidency.” (Source: Wikipedia on Will Rogers.)

Although a supporter of the New Deal, Rogers was not averse to comically critiquing its shortcomings or any “bunk” about it spouted by its chief architect. FDR, in turn, took Rogers’ parodies and jibes in good humor; moreover, the president’s own uplifting and lively quips owed much to what he had learned from Oklahoma’s “favorite son”. When Rogers died in a plane crash in 1935, the nation mourned as it never had before for a comedian. Like FDR, Rogers is remembered mostly today for providing—through sheer force of wit—relief, comfort, and temporary escape to a populace for whom those were in short supply.

The hardships of the depression years were such that the American people were less in the mood for strident satire and more inclined towards escapism and entertainment. These preferences continued into the next international crisis: World War II. Here, political comedians again attuned themselves to the prevailing moods of communality and consensus. Inoffensive fantasy fare characterized most humor of this era, particularly in the movies and other entertainment outlets, as fit-the-bill all-American patriots like Gracie Allen and Bob Hope took center-stage, offering timely tonic for both the troops overseas and those holding down the fort on the home-front.

Allen, like so many prior comedians, employed a “dumb innocent” persona and served up zany scatter-brain antics incongruous to all rationality and logic. Such methods were used to potent effect in 1940 when, as a publicity stunt, Allen ran as a fake presidential candidate on the “Surprise Party” ticket. Her campaign, complete with a whistle-stop tour and the slogan “Down with common sense, vote for Gracie”, brought some wacky whimsy (and a refreshing female touch) to the general election and to a nation burdened by uncertainty and fear. Amongst her many campaign trail quips was the line, “Everyone knows a woman is better than a man when it comes to introducing bills into the house” (Source: Wikipedia on Gracie Allen.)

Equally beloved for his spirit-rousing during the war was Bob Hope. A comic comrade to every president from FDR to Bill Clinton, Hope spent the war years living up to his surname when entertaining allied troops around the globe. His rapid-fire one-liners often targeted the political powers-that-be but they were always innocuous quips, never more than gentle rib-ticklers, as was deemed befitting for an audience serving the national interest and with rather more pressing concerns at hand.

One might have expected an edgier political humor to return in the post-war years as America sought a return to normalcy, but the emergence of the Cold War encouraged social pressures to maintain the moratorium on critical humor. Communism was regarded as no laughing matter and criticism of America and its leaders was liable to be seen as unpatriotic and even “red”-friendly. Throughout the ’50s McCarthyism gripped the nation, casting a pall of fear and censorship over the comedy world. Those bold enough to challenge the status quo were often ostracized or, as in the case of satirist-songwriter Pete Seeger, dragged before the House UnAmerican Activities on charges suggesting his dissent amounted to treason.

Such silencing of our political comedians might seem unthinkable today, though it might be noted that as recently as 2001 Bill Maher paid a price for exercising his freedom of speech when his Politically Incorrect show was cancelled after he suggested that whatever else we might say about them, the 9/11 terrorists could not be called “cowards”.

The ignominious fall of McCarthy broke the big chill of ’50s censorship, and this thaw was particularly helped along by the emergence of a new comedy underground that included a number of irreverent comedians unwilling to pander to the pressures of institutional authority. Playing to young hip audiences in the small comedy clubs of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, and others tore the veil off of America’s nationalistic delusions, in the process spawning new forms, contents, and practices of political humor from and for a new generation.

President Dwight E. Eisenhower may have enjoyed mandate support for his two terms in office during the ’50s, but his popularity did not stretch to all demographics. Many young Americans, weary of the stringency that had gripped America through the Great Depression, World War Two, and the McCarthy years, were eager to break out of the political suffocation and assert a long-lost critical spirit and freedom of speech.

As is so often the case, such rebellion started via comedians, particularly Mort Sahl. Clutching the day’s newspaper in hand and dressed like he had just emerged from a college dorm room, Sahl strutted across stages delivering the gospel according to the new breed of youth dissenters. In striking contrast to the witty but warm one-liners Bob Hope soft-balled at politicians, Sahl delivered lengthy deconstructions of presidents and their policies, exposing hypocrisy, deceit, and mendacity in the process.

War hero Eisenhower had enjoyed largely uncritical deference from both the media and the masses, but not from Sahl, who railed with satirical venom against his hands-off approaches to civil rights and civil liberties. “Truman proved that anyone could be president; Eisenhower proved that we don’t need a president”, Sahl once quipped, alluding to the latter’s disengaged—if not disinterested—managerial style.

Critics soon flocked to this new comedic upstart with writer James Thurber comparing Sahl to Mark Twain and Time magazine referring to him as “Will Rogers with fangs” (qtd. in Peter M. Robinson. The Dance of the Comedians: The People, the President, and the Performance of Political Standup Comedy in America. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010. p.114). More conservative observers, though, were less enamored with Sahl’s anti-authoritarian impulse and biting tone. “Commie” and “nigger-lover” were two of many abusive terms to be heard with regularity from outraged hecklers at his shows.

The term “sick” entered the critical lexicon around this time as a catch-all term to describe the new school of comedians that Sahl and fellow maverick Lenny Bruce represented. For them, nothing was off-limits and politicians and presidents were fair game for comedic assault. Eisenhower, in turn, while feeling neither touched nor threatened by these marginal comics, came to appreciate the public role that humor could play in the nation’s political discourse.

However, it was with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 that a revolution in political comedy took place, not only from the stages of comedy clubs but on the campaign trail and in the White House, too. Indeed, no one since FDR used comedy as consistently and calculatedly as JFK did.

If the ’50s seemed somewhat comedy-challenged, bogged down by elderly paternalism and “general” complacency, Kennedy sought a new spirit for the new frontier. In the 1960 presidential campaign his rival contender, Richard Nixon, exuded the harsh seriousness of his Quaker roots and had established his identity as McCarthy’s attack dog during the House UnAmerican Activities trials years earlier. The embodiment of Henri Bergson’s comedic concept of the “mechanical” man, Nixon drew forth scornful laughter for his stiffness, dourness, and apparent lack of a human pulse. A savvy politician, Kennedy contrasted himself accordingly, expressing and exhibiting what Gerald Gardner calls his “sparkling source of humor” (Gerald Gardner. The Mocking of the President: A History of Campaign Humor from Ike to Ronnie. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988. p.185).

JFK’s witty retorts and erudite charm on the campaign trail had earned him a reputation as a quick wit before he even came to office, but this persona was as crafted and practiced as it was spontaneous. Not only was Kennedy one of the first presidents to hire his own comedy team (today all candidates have one), but he used it to maximum effect as a vote-getter. Prior to presenting his stump speech at the next town, Kennedy would always send out his “editorial advance” squad to scour the local environment and construct local-based humorous segments. These garnered immediate empathy with audiences, who relished the personalized connection and were magnetized by the candidate’s comedic appeals.

The ancillary good cheer and uplift these tailor-made speeches brought not only highlighted—by virtue of contrast—the clichéd sentimentality Nixon was serving up, but they also distracted the public from its myriad concerns about the undue influence of the Kennedy family. In this regard, Harry Truman remarked when opposing JFK for the Democratic nomination, “It’s not the Pope I fear, but the Pop” (qtd. in Bob Dole. Great Political Wit: Laughing (Almost) All the Way to the White House. New York: Doubleday. p.80).

Kennedy’s ubiquitous humor had effects beyond his own personal likeability and political effectiveness, though; it also altered attitudes about the presidency itself. Just as the president’s wit connected him to the mainstream and away from elite culture, so it did likewise for the presidency in general. Citizens no longer felt as alienated or remote from the office, or that they should only speak of it in respectful and reverential tones. This perspective shift in presidential address was tried and tested with “precedential” consequence by Vaughn Meader, Kennedy’s impersonator-in-chief.

Mimicking the president has been such a common comedic activity since Chevy Chase first wowed SNL viewers with his Gerald Ford pratfalls that it is difficult to imagine a time when such a practice was actually questioned as to its propriety. Certainly, presidential spoofing had been done before, such as when Will Rogers mimicked Coolidge and FDR, but those performances were largely devoid of a critical edge. Meader, though, despite stressing that his parody was nothing more than “fun” (see the cover of Vaughn Meader, The First Family, LP. Cadence, CLP-3060), it sometimes struck to the heart of Kennedy’s various Achilles’ heels: his influential family; his Catholicism; his crafty communication strategies. And while the president himself never openly condemned nor criticized his doppelganger’s skits, he was reluctant to embrace or comment upon them either. The administration’s muted response to Meader’s incoming mockery missives was likely because it had preferred being in sole control of all communications—even those of a humorous nature.

While the Kennedys mostly stewed in silence as Meader rode his caricature of JFK to the summit of the comedic ranks, others were not so tight-lipped. James Hagerty, press secretary under President Eisenhower, called Meader’s impressions “degrading to the presidency” and regarded them as fodder for the communists (qtd. in Robinson p.133). Martin Luther King, on the other hand, was concerned that Meader mania was distracting the populace from the rather more pressing civil rights issues of the day. Others questioned whether such open spoofing was going too far, though most found the humor acceptable, particularly as Kennedy himself had so forthrightly fostered a humor-loving and open-minded public image.

Meader’s meteoric rise from struggling stand-up to premier presidential comic reached its zenith with the release, in 1962, of The First Family, a tour-de-force record featuring the comedian and 11 other actors impersonating various figures within the Kennedy camp. Released right after the Cuban missile crisis, the album spurred on and reflected the national catharsis, sparking an exhalation of collective comedic relief. With its mix of light-hearted skits alternately celebrating and lampooning the Kennedys, both lovers and haters of the family found something to enjoy on the album such that it soon became the biggest selling record in American history.

The phenomenon of The First Family persisted into the next year, though by mid-1963 Meader had become weary of the typecasting his gimmick had brought. Still, he continued to reap its benefits until November 22nd, when the comedian’s career came to a crashing halt with the tragic assassination of his subject—and meal ticket. “Boy, did Vaughn Meader get fucked”, Lenny Bruce announced from the stage in the ensuing days (qtd. in Robinson 139).

The efficacy of presidential humor has been an issue of discussion throughout our history, but the Kennedy era brought about a watershed moment. Never before had a president employed humor so concertedly, nor had had it used against him so openly. Certainly, while both the president and the comedy cadre fanned the flames of each other, the accelerating humor within both can be somewhat accounted for by changing demographics, for the emergence of the baby boomers not only brought new blood into comedy’s ranks but it also introduced a new generation of politicians into the White House.

Just as Sahl, Bruce, and Meader challenged the stock conservatism of the Borscht Belt old school, so Kennedy brought a new spirit of openness, inclusiveness, and wit into political discourse. Young people’s embrace of the president both validated and confirmed the larger cultural changing of the guard taking place. Thereafter, presidential humor entered a new epoch, one where censorious voices became increasingly shouted down by emboldened political humorists unbeholden to traditions and propriety but open to critical comedy by any means necessary.