A State of the Union on Presidential Comedy

bush funnyA recent piece in the New York Times lamented the lack of humorous quotables from this season’s GOP campaign trail. Sure, the candidates have been the collective butts of many a joke, but they aren’t intentionally funny, which is really what counts for Mr. Leibovich. He has a point: even The Onion lampooned frontrunner Romney’s straight-laced persona, contrasting him with candidates of charisma’s past. Of course, the current Republican contenders promise they’re funny in private—just “turn those cameras off!” said Ann Romney of her husband—but their public personas hardly suggest it.

Sadly, the state of the Oval Office is no better. President Obama, once praised for his wit, is losing his touch; his “spilled milk” joke in the State of the Union fell horrifically flat.

Yes, we’re electing a commander-in-chief, not a comedian. But past presidents have been known to employ humor effectively, both as a political tool and in comedy’s own right. Here’s a run-down of a few moments of presidential humor for the ages.

  1. Ronald Reagan brought his acting chops to the Oval Office, transferring the comedic skills he honed in movies like 1951’s “Bedtime for Bonzo” to his role as commander-in-chief. Reagan’s easy speaking style lent itself to humor, and Reagan himself was fond of placing jokes in his speeches. In one running routine, Reagan entertained audiences with “Soviet jokes”: tales from the USSR meant to contrast the prosperity of America with the perceived squalor of the Soviet Union.
  2. President Obama‘s hit a rough patch in his comedic career, but our President has offered us some great moments in political comedy. One particularly notable selection comes from the 2011 White House Correspondent’s Dinner, when Obama responded to critics skeptical of his American citizenship with an irreverent “birth video.” Donald Trump, however, was not amused.
  3. Richard Nixon‘s appearance on the 1960’s television sketch show Laugh-In consisted little more of an incredulous Nixon, then running for the presidency, reciting the show’s catchphrase. Nevertheless, Nixon spoke the “Sock it to me?” around the world. Hubert Humphrey, Nixon’s opponent, refused invitations to appear on the show; “Humphrey later said that not doing it may have cost him the election,” said the show’s creator.
  4. Even the Founding Fathers were fans of political humor. Though Benjamin Franklin’s witticisms are well-known, John Adams, today known for being especially stodgy, too wielded a sardonic wit. Wrote Adams:

The History of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electric rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. Then Franklin electrified him… and thence forward those two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislations, and War.

Now that’s some satire we can believe in.

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