Comics-in-Chief: Laughing With (and At) the Presidents — The Scathing Slice of the Satirical Edge

The ’60s, it’s often said, changed everything, and political humor is no exception. Prescient trailblazers from the underground—like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Dick Gregory—had already sent out warning flares of a zeitgeist in comedy, and John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson had shown that even from within the Beltway, humor could be deployed in strategic new ways. However, no one could have anticipated the tsunami of political humor that began to storm the nation from all directions from the mid-’60s on. Tony Hendra described the counter-culture humor of this era as “going too far” in his book of the same name, and its innovations in tone, content, and style set precedents for much of the humor we experience today.

Like most storms, this one was preceded by calm. The assassination of President Kennedy on 20 November 1963 killed not only young people’s most beloved president in recent memory, but also the almost daily banter that had been established between the Kennedy camp and the media. In the immediate aftermath of his death an unofficial moratorium existed on humor similar to what happened just after the events of 9/11. In both cases, people were just not in the mood for levity, nor did comedy seem appropriate. The mute button was released, however, by the time JFK’s successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, settled into the White House.

LBJ was in many respects the anti-JFK: a scheming insider rather than a visionary idealist; a western plain-speaker rather than an articulate eastern sophisticate; an arm-twisting bully more than a quick-witted charmer; a scowling figure as opposed to upbeat and inviting. Whereas Kennedy exuded bright, imaginative wit, Johnson’s sense of humor stretched little beyond sarcastic put-downs and the dirty tall tales of his Texan heritage. Despite these perceptions amounting as much to myth as reality, LBJ could never shed the inconvenient contrasts; in looks, character, and public image—to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen on Dan Quayle—he was just no Jack Kennedy.

Comedy vultures descended accordingly, mocking unrelentingly both Johnson’s character and the state of the union. That Was the Week That Was, a sketch comedy show popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the early-to-mid-’60s, spearheaded a so-called “satire boom” of comedians that never got tired of using the US president as their principle punching bag. And while JFK had always matched wit with wit, or at least put on a brave face against incoming satiric missiles, LBJ could not hide his irritation at the often cruel personal mockery directed his way.

The satire boom hardened humor and politicized it in ways neither seen nor heard before. Besides the established channels of editorials, newspaper cartoons, and stand-up, political humor now ventured onto the small screen, particularly on night-time talk shows hosted by the likes of Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett. They brought an unfamiliar irreverence to the monologue segment and mocking the president became a daily ritual. Such developments were quite a departure from ’50s TV fare, over which sponsors controlled and contained (comedy) content within a box demarcated by the conservative consensus.

Political humor was disseminated in the ’60s mostly through a growing youth demographic increasingly skeptical and critical of administrations’ policies on civil rights, Vietnam, and other issues that effected young people first-hand. MAD magazine—with its tag-line “Humor in a Jugular Vein”—led a new school of comics in directions that would culminate in surrealistic “head” humor, while neo-folk radicals like The Fugs and Country Joe & The Fish emerged as spokes-bands for the newly politicized counter-culture.

The Fugs were at the heart of the practical joke wave—most famously represented by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and Abbie Hoffman’s Yippies—that swept out from within the counter-culture. Characterized by its creativity, whimsy, and obtuseness, prankster humor invariably had a surrealistic edge at one with the psychedelic drug experiences of the time. The Fugs incorporated a political component into this humor. Their mock levitation of the Pentagon at the 1968 March on Washington (protesting the Vietnam War) became the stuff of legend and was even captured by Norman Mailer in his “new journalist” account of the occasion, Armies of the Night. In song, too, The Fugs were brazen in such satirical ditties as “Kill for Peace” and “C.I.A. Man”. “Who can squash republics like bananas? / …Fuckin’ A, man / C.I.A. man”, goes the latter’s chorus line (The Fugs’ First Album. Fantasy, 1990).

Country Joe & The Fish were equally candid in their repertoire, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” becoming a sing-along staple of anti-war protests after it came to prominence as the stand-out song at the Woodstock festival. “Superbird” particularly captured the drug-addled brand of political humor that had been brewing in their hometown of San Francisco for some time. Its eccentricity-meets-dissent mockery of President Johnson spoke in the language and tone of the insurgent youth movement. “Look up yonder in the sky now / What is that, I pray? / It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a man insane / It’s my President LBJ”, Joe gleefully sings before adding, “Gonna make him eat flowers / Yeah, make him drop some acid.” (The Collected Country Joe & The Fish. Vanguard, 1990).

The agit-prop impulse of these artists and activists brought humor out of its usual sanctuaries of stages and pages, and onto the streets where protest marchers popularized slogans like “LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”, which soon morphed into variants like “LBJ, pull out like your old man should have” (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, 2010. p.165). Even mainstream media came to embrace the new black humor, as columnist Art Buchwald and cartoonist Jules Feiffer skewered the president with cutting commentary in the so-called “serious” papers.

TV, too, loosened its censorious collar, providing spaces for counter-culture lite entertainers like The Smothers Brothers but also edgy black comedians like Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor. Taking a page from the comic playbook of old-time “rubes” like Seba Smith and Will Rogers, Gregory used incongruity humor by imagining himself in the role of the president. Such a comic ploy highlighted inequities black people were “really” experiencing and thus played an integral role in the larger civil rights struggles. This era even had its own mock presidential candidate, continuing a tradition that had previously given us fake contenders in Will Rogers and Gracie Allen. Pat Paulsen’s 1968 campaign was crafted in order to critique both the presidential election process and the power-brokers that sustained it. He named his party the “Straight Talking American Government” (STAG) and ran under the word-playing slogan “We Can’t Stand Pat”.

Alas, the country chose Nixon over Paulsen at the polls, ushering in a president that many consider one of the most humor-challenged in modern history. Nixon had long been presented as a caricature by the national media. Physically, his dark eyebrows, perpetual five o’clock shadow, and brooding jowls gave him a sinister look befitting the man who had just served as McCarthy’s side-kick attack dog during the dark days of the House Un-American Activities hearings. Cartoonists couldn’t believe their luck at being given such a physical specimen to play with. In character, too, Nixon was harsh and serious; as Henri Bergson would see it, in need of some corrective laughter. However, humor was never Nixon’s strong suit, and despite his fleet of hired comedy writers and the occasional pop-up on TV shows like Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, comedy always fell embarrassingly flat when emanating from his mouth.

Harry Truman captured the recurring “Tricky Dick” slight that plagued Nixon when he commented, “He is one of the few men in the history of this country to run for high office talking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time and lying out of both sides” (qtd. in Bob Dole. Great Political Wit: Laughing (Almost) All the Way to the White House. New York: Doubleday, 1998. p.37). Even Bob Dole, a fellow Republican, weighed in. At an occasion in the late ’70s when Presidents Carter, Ford, and Nixon had gathered at the White House, Dole quipped, “There they are: see no evil, hear no evil, and…evil” (Dole, p.54). With friends like these from within the world of politics, it is not surprising that the media had even more of a field day in their attacks. Pre, post, and during his term-and-a-bit in office the comedic onslaught came from all angles against Nixon and his frequent embittered outbursts against all media suggest that he felt every body blow.

Watergate, of course, confirmed what many humorists had been suggesting for some time: that paranoia, deceit, and venality lay at the core of Nixon’s character. Watergate was, too, a comedian’s ultimate god-send. “I hear that whenever someone in the White House tells a lie, Nixon gets a royalty” was one of hundreds of jibes Johnny Carson made in his late night show monologues during these times (qtd. in Robinson, p.190). The youth counter-culture, likewise, unloaded on Nixon in a series of running gags and pithy put-downs. “Impeach with honor” and “Dick Nixon before he dicks you” were just two of many slogans adopted by protesters in the streets.

The venom in counter-culture humor was vividly illustrated by Hunter S. Thompson, who brought his customary “gonzo” flavor to a piece he wrote (for Pageant magazine) about Nixon on the eve of his 1968 election victory: “He was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad. The Nixon I remembered was absolutely humorless. I couldn’t imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a paraplegic who wanted to vote Democratic but couldn’t quite reach the lever on the voting machine” (WikiQuote: Hunter S. Thompson).

After Nixon’s Shakespearian acts of hubris, Presidents Ford and Carter brought some welcome humility to the presidency in the post-Watergate era. On entering the office, the former vice-president set expectations modestly low when declaring, “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln” (qtd. in Robinson, p.191). A new sketch comedy show at the time, Saturday Night Live, was not, however, willing to let the makeshift president slip under the comedy radar. Despite once being a star college athlete, Ford’s occasional though notorious clumsiness gave SNL comedian Chevy Chase all the ammunition he needed to craft his slapstick-driven impersonation.

Carter, like Ford, projected a candor, transparency, and clarity absent under Nixon, but these traits just became fodder for SNL and others who mocked his sunny cult-like smile and righteous demeanor, casting him as a southern “rube” and his brother “Billy Beer” as a redneck. Despite their attempts to be upbeat and resilient, both Ford and Carter became unwitting victims of the comedic floodgates that had burst open during Nixon’s fall, and they were impotent in combating the caricatures that ultimately enveloped and defeated them. Such was not the case with the next president, Ronald Reagan, who, while providing just as much fuel for comedy fire, was adept at extinguishing incoming flares or fanning his own flames in response.

Reagan was the most natural wit in the White House since John F. Kennedy and was just as strategic in using it as his predecessor had been. And while JFK often used humor in order to buffer interrogations about his powerful Catholic family, Reagan did likewise in relation to his often extreme ideological positions and, as the oldest person ever elected to the office, his age. Regarding the latter concern, 1984 contender Walter Mondale became the butt of the joke when, during the second presidential debate, Reagan was asked if age would affect his ability to serve. His response: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience” (qtd. in Robinson, p.210). Knock-out punches like these were Reagan’s calling cards, as candidate Carter discovered during the 1980 campaign. Then, unlike with Mondale later, it was Reagan who was charged with inexperience at the highest levels of government—to which he retorted, “I haven’t had Jimmy Carter’s experience. I wouldn’t be caught dead with it” (qtd. in Dole, p.41).

Reagan’s prior career as a B-movie actor in Hollywood made him a joke candidate in some critics’ eyes, but he clearly used his acting chops in timing and delivering (and no doubt rehearsing) his jokes at the expense of others. This, coupled with his avuncular charm and unruffled public presence, made him one of America’s most beloved presidents by the time he left office in 1989. Ironically, Reagan’s wit worked best when he set himself in opposition to the very government he sat at the apex of. He made wisecracks on behalf of fiscal conservatism at the very same time as his administration ran up the national debt in unprecedented fashion, yet the power of his aw-shucks, Mr. Smith-like down-home humor enabled him to obfuscate any political realities. Like 19th century comedians Seba Smith, Charles Farrar Brown, and Finley Peter Dunne, Reagan succeeded by assuming the role of the everyman-outsider fighting against oppressive power structures—despite, in reality, representing and advocating for the latter. Peter M. Robinson explains the strategy: “He used humor to ingratiate himself into the community with fellow citizens while distinguishing himself at the same time” (p.207)—as Lincoln had done.

The celebrity-in-chief role that Reagan cultivated so effectively has since become a standardized necessity for all presidential candidates. It’s almost impossible to run for the highest office nowadays without first traversing the day and night-time talk show circuits—and “performing” accordingly with cheerful comic aplomb. Those who have attempted to circumvent such national demands, like Mitt Romney in the recent election, have paid a high price in popularity and likeability. Some, like Sarah Palin, proved so inept at dealing with the serious media during the 2008 campaign that she basically settled for appearances on comedy TV shows where her “dumb” character played to more populist appeal.

The biggest changes in presidential humor in recent decades have come not in content or style, both of which still largely follow templates established by SNL in 1975, but in the media industry itself, which now has more outlets than ever before. This modern media-scape has its roots in Reagan-era deregulation and has since widened further, courtesy of the technological revolution. Deregulation of TV in the late ’80s facilitated the arrival of cable channels with specialized content and without obligations to satisfy any consensus interests or “public trust”. New, more extreme material catering to specific demographics soon arrived on the screen, and comedy—particularly on HBO—was at the vanguard.

Simultaneously, other media followed, with talk radio moving in increasingly polemical directions. Rush Limbaugh, since 1984, has graced the airwaves with his radio talk show, satiating his cult of “ditto heads” by playing to their anti-liberal leanings through blowhard sound bit(e)s couched in vitriolic mockery. Arguably, much of the hateful resistance Presidents Clinton and Obama (have) received is due to Limbaugh’s rallying of the right-wing base with his provocative put-down humor.

Even the news media has been adulterated by deregulation. With cable channels stealing their ratings, traditional news services (ABC, NBC, CBS) have found it an economic necessity to make their programming more appealing. The result has been the emergence of “infotainment”, both from serious news sources but also from comedy-news hybrid programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Ironically, this latter sub-genre is often more delving and news-worthy than the former, and many young people today gravitate to Jon Stewart rather than Brian Williams for their daily news coverage.

This morphing of the news with comedy is particularly pronounced on the internet, where sites like The Onion and JibJab serve up political humor in tandem with the 24-hour news cycle. Sometimes their pointed wit veers into absurdism, such as when, during the last election, The Onion ran the outrageous “story”, “‘Romney Murdered Jon Benét Ramsey’, New Obama Ad Alleges”. Like much new media, though, this piece spoke—through satire—undeniable truths about the dishonesty of the political campaigns, the sensationalism of modern media, and the gullibility of the general public.

These recent trends in our national discourse are unlikely to slow down in the foreseeable future. In fact, with the explosion of new social media forums like Facebook and Twitter, which lend themselves conveniently to non-stop and succinct witty retorts from anyone to anywhere, the marriage of politics and humor will surely continue to grow more intertwined and intimate, such that our presidents, public, and media will exist in a perpetual state of attentive vigilance, ever-ready to out-wit each other.