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: THE PEOPLE, THE PRESIDENT, AND THE PERFORMANCE OF POLITICAL STANDUP COMEDY
THE PEOPLE, THE PRESIDENT, AND THE PERFORMANCE OF POLITICAL STANDUP COMEDY
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THE PEOPLE, THE PRESIDENT, AND THE PERFORMANCE OF
POLITICAL STANDUP COMEDY IN AMERICA
by Peter McClelland Robinson
This dissertation argues that the emergent performance of political standup comedy became a
significant agent for mediating and complicating the relationship between the American
people and the American presidency, particularly during the middle half of the twentieth
The Dance of the Comedians examines standup comedy—particularly its
ramifications for the presidency and Americans’ perceptions of that institution—as a
uniquely compelling form of cultural performance. Part ceremonial ritual and part playful
improvisation, the performance of political comedy in its diverse forms became a potent site
of liminality that empowered all of its constituents—the comic, the audience, and the object
of the joke—to reexamine and renegotiate the roles of all concerned. It is this tripartite bond
of reciprocal and labile performance—and its rise to cultural prominence in American
history—that comprises the heart of this study.
Five chapters trace the development of political standup comedy with respect to the
American presidency and analyze the ground-breaking performances by comedians on both
sides of the footlights and both in and out of the Oval Office. During the early Republic,
newspaper editor Charles Farrar Browne reinvented himself as Artemus Ward and pioneered
the performative relationship between the emergent American humorist and the equally
embryonic American audience. During the first third of the twentieth century, humorist Will
Rogers masterfully exploited the liminality of stage and radio to insinuate himself between
Americans and their elected leaders during a period of crisis and redefinition, and he
permanently recast the roles of citizen and president alike. During the 1950s and early 1960s
comedians such as Mort Sahl again cross-pollinated comedy and presidential politics, this
time with the increasing acidity befitting postwar America. Impersonator Vaughn Meader
and his phenomenally popular album, The First Family, consummated the marriage between
entertainment culture and political culture, especially where Americans’ perceptions of the
presidency were concerned. As for the presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F.
Kennedy understood humor’s ability to reap political gain, and they too were cultural arbiters
who prompted a more permanent shift in Americans’ attitudes toward the office and those
who hold it.
THE DANCE OF THE COMEDIANS:
THE PEOPLE, THE PRESIDENT, AND THE PERFORMANCE OF
POLITICAL STANDUP COMEDY IN AMERICA
Submitted to the Faculty of
Miami University in partial
fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
Department of History
Peter McClelland Robinson
Dissertation Advisor: Allan M. Winkler
Peter McClelland Robinson
List of Figures…………………………………………………iv
Chapter One: An American Company of Comedians………..17
Chapter Two: Choosing Partners……………………………..38
Chapter Three: A Presidential Crinoline………………….….55
Chapter Four: New Frontiers……………………………….100
Chapter Five: Dancing for Dollars.…………………………134
List of Figures
Figure 1: “An interview with President Lincoln”…………………………………….…36
Figure 2: Franklin Roosevelt on stage with Will Rogers, 1932…………………………83
Figure 3: President John F. Kennedy presiding over a news conference, 1962………..125
For Beth, Ryan, and Sarah,
who love a comedian.
This was very much an ensemble effort. I am grateful to the many people at Miami
University who were giving of their time and talents during the various stages of this project.
Jeffrey Kimball and Osaak Olumwullah provided valuable theoretical and methodological
feedback as I first contemplated mixing politics and humor to produce history. Charlotte
Goldy and Robert Thurston offered encouragement and direction during my graduate career
that helped me to keep this project and related objectives correctly prioritized. I owe special
thanks to my dissertation committee. Historians Sheldon Anderson and Peggy Shaffer
commented on this work with critical eyes and supportive words, and William Doan’s insight
regarding performance studies continued a tradition of wise and compassionate counsel from
the Miami University theatre department that I have benefited from since my undergraduate
days at Miami thirty years ago. I would like to offer special appreciation to Andrew Cayton,
whose generous service on my committee is but one small measure of what this extraordinary
scholar has given me. He has modeled excellence in teaching, advising, and writing that I
will spend a career attempting to emulate. These are all extraordinary scholars whom I now
count among my colleagues and friends. I am also grateful to Jeri Schaner, secretary in the
history department, for her assistance throughout this process.
I owe special thanks to the entire staff at the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore,
Oklahoma for their help and generosity. Michelle Lefebvre-Carter, executive director of the
Memorial, and Joseph Carter rendered to me one kindness after another during my stay. I am
enormously indebted to Steven Gragert, the Memorial’s archivist and historian, whose
knowledge saved me time, whose expertise served to bring Will into clearer focus, and
whose hospitality turned hard work into an absolute pleasure.
This project could not have been completed in a timely way without the support of all
of my colleagues in the Department of Humanities at the College of Mount St. Joseph in
Cincinnati, Ohio. Sister Margaret McPeak, Elizabeth Barkley, Fran Harmon, and Tim Lynch
were particularly helpful and accommodated my need for time to write with understanding,
incredible good cheer, and constant words of support.
Two people were absolutely indispensable to this project and remain so as I continue
my academic career. Words fail to express my gratitude to Allan Winkler, who has been the
ideal teacher, mentor, guide, and friend. His knowledge, experience, and meticulous
approach to history are surpassed only by his generosity of spirit. Finally but foremost, my
wife Beth has humored me throughout this endeavor. I thank her for her love, for the
expressions of support and encouragement that are much too numerous to count, and for the
joy that has brought me strength (and plenty of laughs) along the way.
Without warning to her audience, and with even her husband uncertain of exactly what was
coming, first lady Laura Bush took the lead and stole the show at the annual White House
Correspondents’ Association dinner on April 30, 2005. In a performance widely applauded
by supporters and critics on both sides of the culture wars, Mrs. Bush made open fun of the
policies, the foibles, and, obliquely, even the sexual performance of the president of the
United States. Just as George W. Bush was approaching the podium as entertainer-in-chief, a
role increasingly prescribed for the president by the exigencies of the twentieth century, Mrs.
Bush reversed expected performance roles––and even lingering gender expectations where
First Ladies are concerned––and pushed him aside:
Ladies and gentlemen, I've been attending these dinners for
years, and just quietly sitting there. Well, I've got a few things
I want to say for a change. George always says he's delighted
to come to these press dinners. Baloney! He's usually in bed
by now. I'm not kidding. I said to him the other day: George,
if you really want to end tyranny in the world, you're going to
have to stay up later.
As the ten-minute routine proceeded, Mrs. Bush bemoaned her evenings spent
married to “Mr. Excitement” by identifying with one of the year’s most popular television
shows and by sharing her solution for invigorating White House domestic life, touching on
Mr. Bush’s more private shortcomings in the process:
Ladies and gentlemen, I am a desperate housewife. I mean, if
those women on that [television] show think they're desperate,
they ought to be with George. One night, after George went to
bed, Lynn Cheney, Condi Rice, Karen Hughes and I went to
Chippendale's. I wouldn't even mention it, except Ruth
Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor saw us there. I won't tell
you what happened, but Lynn's Secret Service codename is
now "Dollar Bill."
As the laughter swelled, it quickly became clear that Laura Bush was a hit. Occasionally she
cast glances left or right toward Bush, Lynn Cheney, or some other target, perhaps with a
wink of reassurance that all was in jest, but never apologetically. She clearly enjoyed her
moment at center stage, the studied gracefulness of her smile failing to completely mask a
sense of impish glee she flashed with each joke and every roar of approval from the crowd of
journalists. At the climax of her act, with her confidence high and her comic role by now
firmly established, she ventured deeper into more volatile political territory with her
description of Bush on their ranch in Crawford, Texas:
We like it down there. George didn't know much about
ranches when we bought the place. Andover and Yale don't
have a real strong ranching program. But I'm proud of George.
He has learned a lot about ranching since that first year when
he tried to milk the horse. What's worse it was a male horse.
Now, of course, he spends his days clearing brush, cutting
trails, taking down trees, or as the girls [Bush daughters Jenna
and Barbara] call it: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. George's
answer to any problem at the ranch is to cut it down with a
chainsaw, which I think is why he and Cheney and Rumsfeld
get along so well.1
Although Laura Bush’s material was crafted by White House speechwriter Landon
Parvin and well rehearsed in advance, she displayed the chops of a comic pro. Her lack of
formal experience notwithstanding, her delivery was focused and smooth. She displayed a
polished sense of timing as she allowed the laughter and applause from one joke to crest and
proceed just past its peak before continuing, never allowing silence to kill the comic rhythm.
Cedric the Entertainer, one of the nation’s most popular comedians and ostensibly the
evening’s headliner, could only sit and try to enjoy being upstaged by a comic novice who
had her act down cold.
Laura Bush’s performance as a seasoned standup comic was due not only to her
rehearsals in the days leading up to the dinner but also to her awareness—like that of her
husband and his administration—of the potency of the live comedic event as political theatre
in the early twenty-first century. By standing in front of an audience that received and
responded to her jokes about the president, and simultaneously in front of the president
himself—the object of the humor—the first lady-turned-comic became an agent for
mediating the dynamic relationship between the American presidency and the American
Laura Bush’s appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on 30 April 2005 can be
people, who were represented at the dinner by members of the White House press corps. In
this comedic ménage à trois between the people, the president, and the comic, Mrs. Bush the
comedian stood in command at the center.
This mediation through standup comedy had been incubating since the founding of
the Republic, but it resonated most potently during the middle half of the twentieth century.
As prominent participants in American politics, the Bush family had long been schooled in
(and victimized by) such humor, but family members learned alongside their fellow citizens
during a period when such ridicule of the presidency became prominent, even ubiquitous, on
the American cultural landscape. Today most Americans at least acknowledge as common
cultural currency the skewerings of President Bush on cable television’s The Daily Show with
Jon Stewart, the satire of the presidency on Saturday Night Live, the ridicule that is the staple
ingredient of monologues on The Tonight Show or Late Night with David Letterman, and the
parody peppered across the World Wide Web on sites such as JibJab.com. Fewer
Americans, however, recall the 1950s and 1960s antics of Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, and
Vaughn Meader, whose standup routines and impersonations prompted millions of
postwar/cold war Americans to redefine their attitudes toward the chief executive. And
fewer still remember Paul Sills and David Shepherd, two University of Chicago students
whose mischievous experiments with improvisation and performance in the 1950s led to
Chicago’s Second City and indirectly to Saturday Night Live. There are other comic icons as
well, notably Will Rogers, who played a watershed role, not only in bringing presidential
humor into the mainstream, but also through his masterful exploitation of every performance
medium at his disposal, thereby initiating a popular new dynamic that brought common
Americans and their president into a closer and more equitable proximity. Rogers
encouraged his fellow citizens to understand the performance and reception of humor as a
site of cultural exploration, creativity, and even political resistance, however tame by modern
standards. Presidents and their supporters, along with their critics and even their wives, have
responded by getting in on the act, perceiving the power of such humor to define, reinforce,
and otherwise affect popular opinion.
The merry, mocking, and often contested anarchies of standup political comedy
precipitated by Rogers and his beneficiaries have locked humorists, presidents, and their
fellow Americans in an improvisational and often ambiguous three-way dance that has been
formative to modern political and popular culture in the United States. Laura Bush’s routine
at the Washington Hilton hotel simply was emblematic of this interaction. It is this tripartite
bond of reciprocal and labile performance, its origins, its leading players, and its rise to
cultural prominence that comprises the heart of this study.
The Dance of the Comedians examines standup comedy—particularly its
ramifications for the presidency and Americans’ perceptions of that institution—as a
uniquely compelling form of cultural performance. While the term “performance” has taken
on overlapping pleats of meaning in the arts, humanities, and social sciences in recent years,
here the term refers primarily (though not exclusively) to an event where participants
congregate in live community with one another to display and respond to patterned behaviors
or roles. Part ceremonial ritual, part playful improvisation, the performance of comedy
empowers its participants to reexamine, renegotiate, and often redefine the roles of all
concerned. At the White House correspondents’ dinner, Laura Bush presented herself before
an audience in the predetermined if surprising role of comedian for the purpose of “simple”
entertainment. In the process, however, she commanded a complex and multi-faceted
cultural transaction. She invoked the comical to tweak her audience’s perception of
President Bush, but just as significantly—with Bush also present and on display as the object
of the laughter—the president was humbled into re-imagining, however briefly, a less
imperious and more vulnerable relationship between himself, those in the media, and the
American people at large. The institutional formality of the presidency—and the attendant
deference accorded it—was upstaged by the humanity of the president himself. With the
masturbatory reference to Bush naively milking a male horse, she even challenged his
carefully crafted image as the experienced rancher, the homegrown master of his own Texas
domain. While this particular moment may not have permanently affected the presidency or
people’s perceptions of it, this study will argue that the cumulative impact of other earlier
performances by other comedians, other presidents, and other Americans have affected
American popular and political culture in profound ways. In May 2005, Laura Bush, her
husband, and her audience simply danced the steps first choreographed by the comic pioneers
who people this study.
This study reflects a number of important influences. Although my discussion of
performance borrows liberally from classical theatre traditions and a growing wealth of
scholarship from the fields of sociology, semiotics, and literary criticism as well as cultural
history, the concept of performance in this context owes the most to the work of
anthropologist Victor Turner and his many intellectual beneficiaries, including director and
theorist Richard Schechner. Turner stressed the transformative process of the performative
act more than its end result. Expanding on the work of Milton Singer and folklorist Arnold
van Gennep early in the twentieth century, he claimed that performance is a site of volatile
and unpredictable margins, a “betwixt and between[ness]” where audiences are separated
from conventional social relations and brought to a threshold or “limen” that exists on the
verge of individual and collective transformations.2
In this rarefied air of performance, new
possibilities are given license and may be freely shaped, embraced, accepted, or dismissed
before the audience is reacclimated into the thoroughfare of everyday life. The very process
of performance, therefore, offers the potential for a highly charged critique of cultural norms.
It can, as Turner observed, be likened to a loop in a culture’s linear progression “when the
social flow bends back on itself, in a way does violence to its own development, meanders,
inverts, perhaps lies to itself,” reveling in the antics of non-constraint.3
is to be found in the throes of performance that Schechner has called “an arena of struggle”
and in what I prefer to call the vibrant and fleeting dance between a performer’s creative
actions and an audience’s creative and spontaneous response.4
I maintain that standup
comedy embraces this liminality in particularly audacious ways that have shaped American
political discourse, most significantly where it concerns the changing American presidency.
Certainly the “liminoid” characteristics of any single performance—comedic or
otherwise—will not necessarily disturb the established order of things in any radical way.
With the new complexities of the twentieth century, however, together with the proliferation
of electronic mass media and Americans’ burgeoning access to them, public sites of
performance became more numerous and volatile and often led Americans not to cultural
affirmation but rather to new interrogations and increasingly to new conclusions about
themselves and their relationship to virtually every facet of their culture, including their most
prominent political leaders. A centerpiece of my argument is that standup comedy emerged
Victor Turner, The Anthropology of Performance (New York: PAJ Publications, 1988), 75. 3
Richard Schechner, The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance (London: Routledge, 1995), 1.
from the 1910s to the 1970s as an increasingly prominent and influential means of cultural
performance for making such political interrogations.
This study also benefits from the evolving scholarly dialogue distinguishing between
two types of performative processes: “ritual” and “play,” terms frequently considered to be
antithetical to one another in the Western tradition, yet which are intricately intertwined and
whose interplay is key to examining the effectiveness of standup comedy. Ritual, the
performance of a practiced, often sacred ceremonial process, typically marks a rite of passage
from one social or spiritual status to another. Ritual is rigidly structured and conservative by
definition; it uses the liminal moment to preserve a culture’s most cherished values, and its
very survival depends on the practiced participation of the community. Ritual involves hard
Play, by contrast, is inherently anti-structural, the very antithesis of work or rigidity.
Its hallmarks are spontaneity, freedom, fantasy, experimentation, disorder, and even
subversion of conventional assumptions. Play may serve as simple catharsis, the “letting off
of steam” in response to too much order, in which case cultural assumptions are maintained
or even buttressed, but it may also pursue more dangerous ends, encouraging significant
cultural upheaval. Play, as it turns out, is much more than mere fun and games.6
As Turner, Schechner, and others have pointed out, the boundaries between play and
ritual have become extremely porous despite industrial societies’ attempts to codify and
segregate the two. Traditionally the ritual of work has been held up by the Protestant work
ethic and industrialization as sacred and productive, while play—as non-work—is commonly
denigrated as idle and profane. Turner observed that while the structure of ritual and the
anti-structure of play can and do exist separately in industrialized societies, they are always
close to one another and, in fact, reside in symbiotic alignment. Industrialized society and
the attendant forces of capitalism and nationalism segment people into various workaday
functions, classes, and affiliations within which members are expected to fulfill their
prescribed ritualized roles. Play, with its particularly freewheeling liminoid potential,
complements ritualized behaviors by offering necessary liberation from these roles and,
according to theorist Brian Sutton-Smith, serves to make the ritualized status quo tolerable
Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, Performance Studies Series (New
York: PAJ Publications, 1982), 30-44.
while keeping people flexible and open to possible cultural change.7
expands on this overlapping relationship, maintaining that while play commonly may be seen
as wholly distinct from the ritual of work and may be associated with inconsequentiality or
“mere fun,” in fact “the fun of playing, when there is fun, is in playing with fire, going in
over one’s head, inverting accepted procedures and hierarchies.”8
In working at play, it is
possible “to be playful but not playing; to be playing and neither know it nor be in a play
Play often cloaks itself in ritual (often to comical extremes) as in the ornate
trappings of professional football’s Super Bowl or the practiced and flamboyant
showmanship associated with rock concerts. At their most effective, theatre, musical
performances, and comedy shows all flirt with the predictabilities of public ritual, but their
true power resides in the playful and unpredictable dance on the thin line of liminality
between performer and audience.
Standup comedy hovers over these complex intersections of ritual and play in
particularly stealthy and effective ways. Its audiences tend to gather for the most ordinary of
reasons—to fulfill ritualized norms of behavior—not to engage in guerrilla hit and run raids
on popular culture or the presidency. Going to a comedy club or show is something to do, or,
as with banquets or roasts, it is quite often a ritualized obligation. Ostensibly the White
House press corps and its guests congregated in formal attire at the Washington Hilton in
April 2005 to fulfill another work-related role, to put in an appearance at yet another
professional function, albeit one of the most prestigious. They left, however, with a good
laugh and good copy about a first lady as first-rate cutup. They also became co-conspirators
in a playful act of cultural havoc, however small. For a few fleeting hours the predictabilities
of work cavorted with the improvisational characteristics of play as laughter and applause
reverberated from Laura Bush’s punch lines and gave all those involved a glimpse of
alternative perspectives on the presidency. Play reverted to work once again as the
journalists reported on the evening’s events, offered glowing critiques of her surprise
performance, and mined the evening for every nugget of consumer appeal until the news
cycle turned toward fresher material after a few days.
Brian Sutton-Smith, “Games of Order and Disorder” (paper presented to symposium on “Forms of Symbolic
Inversion” sponsored by the American Anthropological Association, Toronto, 1 December 1972). Quoted in
Turner, From Ritual to Theatre, 28. 8
Schechner, The Future of Ritual, 26-27. 9
Conversely, at first blush it can be said that Laura Bush was “simply kidding” or
“playing around” in joking about the president, her objectives being simple pleasure and the
desire to facilitate a cathartic if temporary truce in the rancorous political and media battles
fought daily within the Washington Beltway. Such assessments are legitimate, of course, as
far as they go. They may even reflect Mrs. Bush’s sincere intentions, yet such trivialization
is beguiling (often to the delight of those complicit in the humorous act who hope that
political humor, by its very definition, will fall below the radar and escape earnest scrutiny).
As Joseph Boskin, Arthur Power Dudden, Jesse Bier, and other scholars of American humor
have argued, the comical is not to be confused with the trivial.10 The laughter and good
cheer accompanying humor belies its political and cultural potency. In fact, political comedy
is quite often where the serious work of democracy is done.
Even though dismissive attitudes toward humor and its legitimate contributions to
public discourse stubbornly remain, a sense of this potency has been increasingly accepted by
interpreters of American culture in the early twenty-first century and the American public at
large. According to a 2005 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press,
comedy programs such as The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live have been cited by a
growing number of young Americans as primary sources for political news. The number of
18-to-29-year-olds who said they learned about presidential campaigns from such programs
doubled between 2000 and 2004.11 Similarly, in the wake of Laura Bush’s performance at
the White House correspondents’ dinner, many journalists and partisans recognized her
comedy as a calculated hit-and-run raid in the culture wars. One web blogger concluded that
the first lady, whose approval ratings were higher than her husband’s, had been put center
stage by Bush strategist Karl Rove in a covert attempt to win back moderate Republicans and
independent voters through her winning use of humor, specifically with the racy references to
Desperate Housewives and milking the male horse.12 New York Times columnist Frank Rich
not only was not laughing at Mrs. Bush’s jokes, he decried the dire repercussions of what he
called “the press corps’ eagerness to…serve as dress extras in what amounts to an
10 See Joseph Boskin, Rebellious Laughter: People’s Humor in American Culture (Syracuse: Syracuse
University Press, 1997); Arthur Power Dudden, ed., American Humor (New York: Oxford University Press,
1987); and Jesse Bier, The Rise and Fall of American Humor (New York: Octagon, 1981). 11 Pew Research Center, Trends 2005 (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2005), 46-47. 12 Heritage, posting to Common Ground Common Sense forum , 1 May 2005,
administration promotional video.”13 Standup comedy—even (or especially) that sweetened
by the charms of an endearing first lady—reasserted itself as a serious weapon in the political
and cultural battles of 2005.
In fact, the Bush performance and the subsequent debate about its motives and
significance were merely derivative of earlier ground-breaking performances by past
comedians on both sides of the footlights and both in and out of the Oval Office. During the
first third of the twentieth century, humorist Will Rogers—costumed in the homespun
simplicity of a “ropin’ fool” and disclaiming, “All I know is what I read in the papers”—
masterfully exploited the liminality of stage and radio to insinuate himself between
Americans and their elected leaders during a period of crisis and redefinition.14 In the
process, he permanently recast the roles of citizen and president alike and encouraged both to
engage each other with a new sense of equanimity. Rogers’s ubiquity in American mass
culture during the early twentieth century initiated unprecedented discussion about the power
and propriety of poking fun at the presidency. His playful jokes touched Americans in their
workaday rituals through the pages of hundreds of daily newspapers. His humor also
accompanied them at play, whether from the vaudeville stage where he starred for the first
quarter of the century, on the screen where he was the top box-office attraction during much
of the 1920s and 1930s, or over the radio airwaves, which he dominated for the first fifteen
years of commercial radio’s existence. Rogers’s genius took center stage at precisely the
same moment that the mass distribution of “show business” began to blur the boundaries
between work and play, and his dominance of the mass media consummated the marriage
between entertainment culture and political culture, especially where Americans’ perceptions
of the presidency were concerned.
Following Rogers’s lead, during the 1950s and early 1960s “new wave” comedians
such as Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, and Dick Gregory—deceptively costumed in the ritualized
suit and tie of the day (Sahl, in his sweater and slacks, was the notable and prescient
exception)—once again cross-pollinated comedy and presidential politics, this time with the
increasing acidity befitting a postwar America haunted collectively by communists,
consumerism, and the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Like Rogers they exploited the new
13 Frank Rich, “Laura Bush’s Mission Accomplished,” New York Times, 8 May 2005, sec. 4, p. 13. 14 Rogers branded himself a “ropin’ fool” in the same-titled film, which he wrote and produced in 1921.
media at their disposal to do so. These included television and film to some extent, although
with the United States transformed into a “consumers’ republic” by the 1950s and television
firmly established as the vital means for promoting patriotism by purchase, political standup
got scant play for fear it would alienate sponsors and their customers.15 Instead, it was the
appearance of the long-playing record in 1948 and its sensational popularity during the 1950s
and 1960s that brought these comics and their material before large crowds. These
performances were usually recorded live, capturing not only the comedians in performance,
but also the audience, which completed the comedic circuit. The live crowd’s infectious
laughter and applause energized listeners at home and encouraged them to spread the
contagion by listening again and again, playing the records at parties, and by repeating the
best jokes to friends and co-workers. Consequently, although the comedians were relegated
to clubs such as San Francisco’s claustrophobic hungry i, a broom closet compared to the
palatial New Amsterdam Theater where Rogers played, and to less dominant media than
those at Rogers’s command, jesters such as Sahl, Newhart, Meader, Gregory, and the comics
of Second City nevertheless popularized a new and more acerbic brand of political humor
that seemed well-suited to uncertain times. Their increasingly mordant performances
reignited the debate over the relationship between common Americans and the highest office
in the land.
As for Frank Rich’s lamentation in 2005 over the Bush administration’s manipulation
of the media by punch line during the White House correspondents’ dinner, it is merely
reminiscent of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s and John F. Kennedy’s pioneering and mesmerizing
use of humor to neuter a potentially hostile press and, by extension, to win over a nervous or
dubious public. When comedic performance served their purposes, both presidents could
seize the liminal moment for themselves and work a crowd as masterfully as a professional
comedian works a room, and while both men possessed deep wells of personal humor that
they drew from instinctively, they were students of the comedians as well—Roosevelt of
Will Rogers and Kennedy of Mort Sahl—however unwittingly. Both presidents understood
humor’s ability to divert or obfuscate for short-term political gain, yet they too were cultural
15 For the rise of commercial television and consumer culture, see Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The
Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003) and Lynn Spigel,
Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press,
arbiters who prompted a more permanent shift in Americans’ attitudes toward the office and
those who hold it. Their humor was sometimes in league with that of the professional
comedians and often in opposition to it, but like Rogers, Sahl, and others, Roosevelt and
Kennedy recognized and actively harnessed humor’s potency, and their effective use of mass
media toward this end and Americans’ widespread acceptance meant that future presidents
would also have to master such humor (as Ronald Reagan did) or be mastered by it (as
Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon discovered). Far from dismissing humor as trivial or
distracting, Roosevelt and Kennedy employed it more seriously than any president since
Abraham Lincoln. If, by the time of his death in 1935, Will Rogers had proved social critic
and former Punch editor Malcolm Muggeridge’s observation that power is inherently
laughable, then by the time Laura Bush took the stage in 2005, presidents and their handlers
knew well the complementary lesson that Roosevelt and Kennedy had taught: that laughter is
inherently powerful.16 These two chief executives proved that presidents, too, could lead the
In fact, the Roosevelt and Kennedy administrations and the years that frame them are
definitive cultural watersheds, periods when wellsprings of humor emanated from the
presidents and the comics alike, with the American public increasingly complicit in the act of
cultural performance. These years put the longstanding rituals of presidential deference most
profoundly in play, as all three—the people, the presidents, and the comedy professionals—
danced their way through what historian Eric Lott has called “a destabilized structure of
fascination,” not with the love-hate symbolism of nineteenth century blackface minstrelsy,
which is at the center of his study of performance, but rather with twentieth century tensions
between traditional reverence for the presidency and ridicule of it.17 Standup comedy could
alleviate these tensions and exacerbate them, often simultaneously. During these years,
political standup was at the center of this destabilization. The liminal moment was up for
grabs, with everyone involved increasingly cognizant of the value of the joke and the latent
force that such seemingly dismissible humor could unleash. These were particularly
fascinating (and funny) moments, when Americans recognized that the performance of
16 Arthur Power Dudden, Pardon Us, Mr. President!: American Humor on Politics (South Brunswick: A. S.
Barnes, 1975), 83.
17 Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1995), 124.
political comedy had tremendous worth (and potentially enormous costs) for those on all
sides of the punch line.
The Dance of the Comedians is about the origins and development of this mutual
recognition. During the first decades of the Republic, when the burgeoning geographic
frontier was the literal manifestation of liminal America, newspaper editor Charles Farrar
Browne reinvented himself as “the Old Showman” Artemus Ward and, in his travels from
Maine to Ohio to California, he pioneered the performative relationship between the
emergent American humorist and the equally embryonic American audience, even as his
hilariously semiliterate observations helped to shape the definition of popular American
humor itself. During the 1860s, his “lectures” on diverse subjects, including “pollertics” and
its various “candydates,” both entranced and transformed those who sold out the lyceums and
temperance halls nationwide to see him perform the pseudonym and material that had made
him famous initially in print.18 Abraham Lincoln, whose own use of humor was as
calculated for effect as it was legendary, was a devoted reader who found in Ward’s playful
jests the ideal palliative for the afflictions of the presidency. After offering a brief tracing of
the opportunities and impediments that informed a uniquely American political humor, this
study begins with an analysis of Ward in performance, his effect on an American audiencecum-public, and his imagined but significant association with the presidency. Ward’s (and
Lincoln’s) audiences were paltry by modern standards; the mass media at their disposal was
certainly rudimentary in comparison. Nevertheless, the beginnings of the dance are here.
I have chosen to conclude with what I observe to be the completion of the
commodification and institutionalization of political standup comedy in the middle 1970s.
By this time, thanks to presidents, comics, and ordinary Americans—performers all during
the previous half-century—presidential humor was not only accepted currency in the
American cultural marketplace, but its consumer value also began to be recognized and
distributed by mass communication channels in ways that directly prompted today’s popular
embrace of presidential humor and ridicule. Lyndon Johnson’s prosecution of the Vietnam
War and the resulting credibility gap, Richard Nixon’s Watergate, and Gerald Ford’s pratfalls
became fodder, not only for comedians now adept at capitalizing on jokes at the expense of
an institution perceived as more laughable than laudable, but also for audiences
18 Artemus Ward, Artemus Ward: His Book (New York: Carleton, 1862), 176, 79.
increasingly—if hardly unanimously—receptive to such jokes in the wake of assassination,
scandal, and duplicity in the executive branch. If presidential humor’s cultural legitimacy
was still debatable to many, its commercial value was no longer in question.
This commodification crystallized relatively quickly. In 1968, presidential candidate
Richard Nixon, one of the most humorless men ever to seek the office, momentarily
conceded comedy’s powerful influence on his political fortunes when he agreed to a one-line
cameo appearance on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, the most popular show on television.
His incredulous reading of the catch phrase of the year—“Sock it to me?”—earned him votes
and further cemented the show’s ratings supremacy.19 More significantly, it affirmed ridicule
of the presidency as a commodity to be bought and sold in volume on the mass consumer
market, a process intimated by Artemus Ward in the nineteenth century, truly begun by Will
Rogers during the 1910s, then rediscovered and further refined by Mort Sahl, Vaughn
Meader, and many others only a few short years before Laugh-In debuted. By 1969 the
wealthiest and most powerful man in American popular culture was neither a politician nor
an author nor a filmmaker, but a standup comedian named Johnny Carson, who could claim
at least as many viewers as the president of the United States could claim votes. In 1974, it
was Carson who delivered the ultimatum to NBC demanding that it stop airing reruns of
Tonight Show material on Saturday nights. Driven by economic necessity, the network gave
license to Lorne Michaels, a former Laugh-In writer, to marshal the ingredients for Saturday
Night Live, which made presidential satire a staple of American popular culture and
household names of Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, and many more from the Second City
comedy troupe inspired by Paul Sills and David Shepherd’s comedy jams of the mid 1950s.
By 1976, with the show’s dominance solidified—largely thanks to the program’s first mock
presidential debate between Chase (playing Ford) and Aykroyd (as challenger Jimmy
Carter)—the liminal moment transitioned to denouement; the threshold was largely passed.
During the years that followed, presidential comedy became increasingly ubiquitous, mass
distributed, and ready for prime time and late-night alike, as the huge popularity of today’s
The Daily Show, Late Night with David Letterman, Real Time with Bill Maher, and the cable
network Comedy Central attests.
19 Hal Erickson, "From Beautiful Downtown Burbank": A Critical History of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in,
1968-1973 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2000), 167-8.
The perception and reception of political standup changed dramatically during the
middle half of the twentieth century. Will Rogers’ declaration: “All I know is what I read in
the papers” is long gone; today, a growing percentage of postmodern audiences will quickly
and unashamedly concede that all they know of the news—and much of what they know of
their president—is taken not from conventional news sources but rather from the political
satire they consume from Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show. In 1962, many Americans
were outraged but millions were tickled by Vaughn Meader’s uncanny impersonation of Jack
Kennedy, their cultural sensitivities piqued by the prospect that the presidential identity could
be co-opted so mischievously—if lovingly—for comedic gain. By 1992 and comedian Dana
Carvey’s imitation of George H. W. Bush on Saturday Night Live, presidential impersonation
and presidential identity had been conflated in many Americans’ minds, with many claiming
that the comic played the president better than the president played himself. In 1952, Dwight
Eisenhower lambasted Adlai Stevenson for introducing humor into the presidential campaign
and denigrating the dignity of the office; by 2005, the White House itself was cleverly
recasting the first lady as standup comedian for what it considered to be the vital purpose of
infusing the presidency with humanity through self-ridicule.20 Much has changed, and now it
is often hard to tell the comedians apart, at least without a dance card.
The Dance of the Comedians seeks to explore the improvised choreography that
precipitated this change. It has been a dance to be sure, often reminiscent of the playful
scene from Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride that inspired the title of
this history. The opera follows the time-honored formula of true love surviving the
meanderings of rash conclusions and mistaken identities, and is set in the rarefied air of a
festival day when ritual is ostensibly celebrated and yet anything can (and therefore does)
happen. The Bartered Bride is essentially a protracted marriage dance, with leaders,
followers, and interlopers in the dance shifting roles dynamically, each vying for others’
attentions and trying to command the moment. “The Dance of the Comedians” is a pivotal
scene, where a ringmaster introduces his troupe of energetic circus performers, infusing even
greater mayhem into the story while paradoxically providing a key to its resolution. It is an
20 Sheldon Cherney, "An Analysis of the Use of Humor in Presidential Campaign Speeches, 1940-1952" (Ph.D.
dissertation, University of Southern California, 1956), 1-2.
exuberant, unsettling, and defining moment.21 Similarly during the twentieth century, the
standup comedian served as both the minister of ritual and the ringmaster of play to join the
people and the presidency in unprecedented—if contested—ways through the liminality of
performance. The dance was at times a relatively harmonious waltz, at others a frenetic
dervish where the players could not avoid tripping over each other and themselves. The
structure of my narrative emphasizes the comics and presidents who have affected this
cultural dance most profoundly. As for the audience, its role as comic interloper is visible
throughout; they are the ticket buyers, theatergoers, record listeners, and television viewers
who laughed, pointed fingers, mimicked the mimics, repeated the best material to co-workers
or neighbors, and, in the process of redefining the modern American presidency, became
comedians themselves, creating what social historian Joseph Boskin has termed “people’s
There are pitfalls to writing histories about comedy and its many variants, which may
explain why a relatively small—although growing—number of scholars has stepped up to the
task, even among those who otherwise champion the study of popular culture. The subject
still lacks widespread academic credibility. Like Rodney Dangerfield, humor often “don’t
get no respect;” we still tend to eschew the study of humor as not “serious,” and therefore
“not important.”23 The valuable (and serious and humorous) work of Boskin, Dudden, and
many others across the fields of history, anthropology, and literary criticism offer welcome
and overdue correctives. Hopefully this study will make a modest contribution as well.
Perhaps the most daunting challenge, however, is that humor—especially presidential
humor—tends to be tightly bound to time and place and therefore highly perishable. Essayist
E. B. White once compared writing about humor to dissecting a frog in order to discover why
it jumps: the endeavor can be valuable, but the subject tends to die on the examination table
and the lifeless glob of component parts not only ceases to jump; it bears little resemblance to
the sprightly frog and the entire enterprise tends to dissipate interest in the subject.24 While it
may be too much to hope that the jokes, satire, and other punch lines discussed here will leap
21 Bedrich Smetana and Karel Sabina, The Bartered Bride: A Lyric Opera in Three Acts (London: Boosey and
22 Joseph Boskin, Rebellious Laughter: People's Humor in American Culture (Syracuse, N. Y.: Syracuse
University Press, 1997).
23 Louis D. Rubin, Jr., "The Great American Joke," South Atlantic Quarterly 72, no. 1 (1973): 83. 24 E. B. White and Katharine S. White, eds., A Subtreasury of American Humor (New York: Coward-McCann,
off the page with the same vitality as when they jumped across the liminal moment in
performance, my hope is that the task at hand can be accomplished with a laugh or two
An American Company of Comedians
In late 1860, Artemus Ward paid a visit to Abraham Lincoln at his home in Springfield,
Illinois. The courtesy call by America’s favorite humorist on the “President eleck of the
United States” was bedlam from the outset:
I found the old feller in his parler, surrounded by a perfeck
swarm of orfice seekers….
“Mr. Ward, [said Lincoln,] sit down. I am glad to see you,
“Repose in Abraham’s Buzzum!” sed one of the orfice seekers,
his idee bein to git orf a goak at my expense.
“Wall,” sez I, “ef all you fellers repose in that there Buzzum
thare’ll be mity poor nussin for sum of you!” whereupon Old
Abe buttoned his weskit clear up and blusht like a maidin of
sweet 16. Jest at this point of the conversation another swarm
of orfice-seekers arrove & cum pilin into the parler….I thought
Old Abe would go crazy….
The house, door-yard, barn & woodshed was now all full, and
when another crowd cum I told ‘em not to go away for want of
room as the hog-pen was still empty….
“Good God!” cride Old Abe, “they cum upon me from the
skize—down the chimneys, and from the bowels of the
The showman stepped boldly to Lincoln’s aid:
“Can’t you giv Abe a minit’s peace? Don’t you see he’s
worrid most to death! Go home, you miserable men, go home
& till the sile!…Stand not upon the order of your goin,’ but go
to onct!”…You ought to hev seen them scamper, Mr. Fair….In
five minits the premises was clear.25
This “cordyul” meeting between the gaggle of office-seekers, Lincoln (“he at the
hellum of the ship of State”), and Ward (“at the hellum of the show bizniss”) was fiction.26
For that matter, so was Artemus Ward. The man and the tale about a humorist coming to the
rescue of a president besieged by those who elected him originated in the antic mind of
25 Ward, Artemus Ward: His Book, 179-85. 26 Ibid., 186.
Charles Farrar Browne, a soft-spoken newspaper man who became the country’s first
standup comedian. Yet the fabricated encounter lived just as plausibly and vividly in the
imaginations of the tens of thousands who devoured the “Interview with President Lincoln”
when it first appeared in the New York magazine Vanity Fair in late 1860 and when it
encored in the best-selling collection of Ward-isms, Artemus Ward, His Book in 1862. The
vision of Ward—the semi-literate “Old Showman”—at the center of a farcical ballyhoo
between the president and the electorate, as well as that of “Old Abe” blushing “like a maidin
of sweet 16,” were images that people could both accept and appreciate in the crucible of
improvisation called the United States of America. Many could even recognize themselves
in the mayhem, and Lincoln, whose own humor was already legendary, was among them.
Artemus Ward, His Book was one of his prized possessions; he turned to it often to stave off
the horrors of the Civil War, frequently beginning cabinet meetings by reading from it
aloud.27 The president of the United States—engaged not only as the object of the joke, but
also its audience and a fellow humorist attuned to the symbiosis of politics and comedy—was
an avid fan.
By the time of his sudden death from tuberculosis in 1867 at age 33, thousands more
of Browne’s fans had also seen Artemus Ward in performance (although Lincoln, whose
penchant for the theatre was as real as it was fatal, was never among them). He toured the
nascent country tirelessly from coast to coast, playing with audiences and their fluid
conceptions of “self” and “other,” of performance and propriety, and as he attracted sold-out
crowds in Lewiston, Maine and San Francisco, California alike, he presaged a wholly new
and uniquely American brand of comedy performance, shaping audiences and the presidency
in the process.
Charles Browne—and his alter ego—stand at the nexus of politics and humor and at
the genesis of political comedy performance in America. He is the personification of a new
nation that found itself betwixt and between in virtually all things at all times, and one that
increasingly recognized laughter as priceless in easing or redirecting the tension inherent to
such a delicate balance. Born on the northern frontier of Maine, a state still newly minted in
1834 and well aware of its role in the tenuous compromises between North and South,
27 John J. Pullen, Comic Relief: The Life and Laughter of Artemus Ward, 1834-1867 (Hamden, Conn.: Archon
Books, 1983), 3.
eastern reformers and western expansionists, he was able to dance along such sectional and
psychological divides with disarming good cheer. He was of the country but only felt the full
rush of personal possibility in the new and growing cities, mimicking a nation that stood
mesmerized on the liminal borderlands between frontier and metropolis. Given a Puritanical
upbringing and imbued with a fierce work ethic, he was nevertheless entranced by the
liberating siren possibilities of the theatre and by those who inhabited it, and he remained in
life-long tension between probity and mischief, recklessness and respectability, work and
play. In all these things, he was the American spirit writ small.
Most significantly, Browne invented Artemus Ward and took him to center stage of
popular culture at precisely the time that Americans were most feverishly auditioning roles of
their own, casting themselves both in the ensemble as part of a general public and in the star
turn as individual citizen. In the zeal of the Second Great Awakening, with the
disappearance of widespread property restrictions on men’s voting rights, and with the
audacious exuberance of Jacksonian democracy galvanizing the new nation during the first
decades of the nineteenth century, the American electorate ballooned and voter participation
in presidential elections surged three-fold.28 Newspaper circulation and readership
mushroomed in tandem, harnessing this newfound political consciousness to the new mass
media—popular print—and its economic impetus—capitalism. Charles Browne’s
beginnings as a type-setter, journalist, editor, and freelance writer on the make gave him
front row access to and a small measure of control over what international studies scholar
Benedict Anderson terms “print capitalism” and over the powerful influence it had on
America beginning to imagine itself as a nation.29 His travels took him into the streets,
newspaper offices, and bars that became his second home, where the papers were dissected
and debated, and where a wholly American public sphere was starting to crystallize.30
As Alexis de Tocqueville and, more recently, historian Mary P. Ryan and others have
pointed out, it was a time when common Americans—both individually and collectively—
were beginning to assume political sovereignty, but in addition to the newspaper columns,
28 Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communication (New York: Basic Books,
29 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Rev. and
extended ed. (London: Verso, 1991).
30 Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of
Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger, Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought. (Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press, 1989).
civic ceremonies, sidewalks, and streets that Ryan identifies as the urban sites of “civic
wars,” the performance halls in large cities and small towns alike were especially potent as
the political spaces—and humor the political means—for rehearsing and crowning oneself as
sovereign citizen.31 If learning to read and buying a newspaper gained one access to the
collective local and national print discourse, then buying a ticket earned one admittance to a
show that offered even more. It invited men—and sometimes women—into merry and
immediate association with fellow Americans, allowed them to hear themselves at center
stage, both in the guise of the comic and through the echo of their own laughter, and to hone
a citizen’s sense of humor that people soon understood held significant power by virtue of
the comedian’s ability to hold court and get laughs. This was the archetypical show that
Browne created from his knowledge of the printed page and that Artemus Ward—as a barely
educated but entrepreneurial and wise-cracking everyman—made a sensation from the
popular stage. He allowed his audience to see themselves in toto as the public and—by
appearing to merely be playing himself (most people did not differentiate between Charles
Browne and Artemus Ward on stage)—to see themselves individually as the citizen. He
modeled humor as a release mechanism and hinted at its potential for cultural and political
subversion. He playfully parodied national institutions—religious diversity, politics and the
presidency, as well as performance itself—and by reducing them to laughter that his audience
could share, he gave license for his fellow citizens to do the same. What is more, Browne
poked fun at these formative institutions not only as they were still forming, but during the
Civil War, at the very hour that their existence was in jeopardy. He demonstrated to his
countrymen and women that the mechanisms of democracy are necessarily forever
undergoing revision and that even in such moments of crisis (or especially during them),
ridicule has a critical pruning effect that allows democracy to grow and those systems to
adapt, lest the supple institutions of democracy become atrophied shibboleths. Browne
allowed Americans to recognize humor as both a tonic to ease the immediate symptoms of
the Union’s pain and a therapy for its re-creation.
31 See Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory, trans. David Macey (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1988), Mary P. Ryan, Civic Wars: Democracy and Public Life in the American City During
the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in
America, trans. George Lawrence, 1st ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).
Charles Browne was the first to conjoin political humor with live performance for
personal profit, but he certainly did not invent American political humor or laughter directed
specifically at the presidency. Anglo-Americans’ mockery of British oppression in general
and the Crown in particular was a staple of the Revolutionary era and offered liberal
precedent for Americans to forever align laughter with political protest. Newspapers such as
James Franklin’s New-England Courant and other publications including his brother
Benjamin’s enormously popular Poor Richard’s Almanack introduced current political
discourse to the reading public as early as the 1720s and 1730s, although in the years before
war itself, most colonists remained loyal to George III and were loathe to make fun of him
directly. In any case, prior to such print-capitalism becoming widely accessible (even at the
height of its popularity Poor Richard’s Almanack sold only ten thousand copies annually),
jibes directed at royal abuses were most commonly circulated in person—live between joker
and audience—wherever two or more colonists gathered together to denounce the Stamp Act,
George III (once war broke out), or monarchy in principle.32 These original exchanges have
been lost, of course, but their echoes can certainly be heard in the “jest-books” that
proliferated in the new nation toward the end of the eighteenth century. One of the earliest, a
Feast of Merriment, published in 1795, recounts the last illness of George II, who reportedly
said to his physician, “You have, Sir, I suppose, helped many to another world.” “Not so
many as your Majesty,” replied the doctor, “nor with so much honor to myself.” In his
preface, the editor of Feast of Merriment championed humor as essential to the new
American spirit, insisting that “if [one] should chance to be a little squeamish at the stomach,
it will prove an excellent remedy for the spleen, or the belly-ach [sic] of despair. In a word,”
he concluded with a nod to the capering, empowering effects of a good laugh:
the editor has written and compiled [this book] for the benefit
of those who may be disposed to dance and sing; to add glee to
the short pittance of life, to improve the social virtues; to
heighten the charms of the big-bellied decanter, and to frighten
haggard care and her wry-faced train to a distance. Depend
upon it, Reader, that with a few glasses of wine in your head, a
pretty lass upon your knee and the Feast of Merriment in your
32 Paul M. Zall, Benjamin Franklin's Humor (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005), 48.
hand, you will be a thousand times happier than any monarch
in the universe.33
According to at least one early American wag—no longer fettered to British tyranny but
clearly still culturally influenced by it—kingly power could not hope to compete with the
liberating power of a good joke.
Simultaneous with growing ridicule of the Crown, Americans began to create a heroic
class from the Revolutionary ranks and, with equal parts adulation and loving ridicule, they
exalted their fellow countrymen’s exploits even as they acknowledged their foibles, thus
recognizing themselves and celebrating the common exceptionalism discernible in every
republican breast. Patriot-heroes of all ranks began to appear both anonymously and by
name in the hundreds of almanacs that sprang up in the immediate postwar years, among
them Ethan Allen, the hero of Ticonderoga, whose ego was clipped in Beers’s Almanac for
1793. One of seven brothers, Allen reportedly observed that there had never before been
seven such born of any woman, to which a Scottish officer replied, “You are mistaken. Mary
Magdelen [sic] was delivered of seven exactly like you,” a reference to Christ having
cleansed her of seven demons. While cutting Allen’s pride down to size through ridicule, the
comment simultaneously championed the audacious swagger that Americans saw both in
their heroes and in themselves.34
Bravery was not the only characteristic applauded in the new American hero; wit was
too. Early almanacs and jest-books not only recorded the exploits of warriors who did battle
on the field, they touted those whose industriousness, knowledge of letters, and prowess with
words waged war on paper and won battles through laughter. No one was mentioned more
frequently in this regard than Benjamin Franklin. Early publications are replete with
worshipful references to his tweaking of all manner of authority. His inventive efficiency
was celebrated, for example, even at the risk of offending his parents and the Almighty,
when, after enduring the long blessings of his father before meals, he reportedly said one
year after all the winter’s provisions had been stockpiled and salted: “I think, father, if you
33 Well-Fed Domine Double-Chin Esq. [pseud.], Feast of Merriment. A New American Jester. Being a Most
Curious Collection of Witty Jests–Merry Stories–Smart Repartees–Droll Adventures–Funny Jokes….
(Philadelphia: 1795), v.
34 Beers’s Almanac and Ephemeris…for…1793 quoted in Robert K. Dodge, Early American Almanac Humor
(Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987), 9.
said grace over the whole task—once and for all—it would be a vast saving of time.”35
Another anecdote reveals Franklin serving as president of the Pennsylvania Constitutional
Convention in 1776 when a law was proposed to forbid Episcopalians from praying for the
King. Franklin, believing such a law might cause more of a disturbance among the public
than it was worth:
thought it quite unnecessary; for, added he, “those people have,
to my certain knowledge, been praying constantly these twenty
years past, that ‘God would give to the King and his counsel
wisdom,’ and we all know that not the least notice has ever
been taken of that prayer; so that it is plain they have no
interest in the court of Heaven.” The house smiled, and the
motion was dropt.36
In lionizing Franklin—the first celebrity comedian—alongside celebrity leaders Henry
(Light-Horse Harry) Lee, Ethan Allen, Horatio Gates, and others, Americans included humor
in their pantheon of treasured national virtues. Indeed, Americans’ adulation of Franklin and
his mix of humor, politics, and performance prepared the way for Artemus Ward and the
political comics who followed.
At first, sustained or large-scale efforts to redirect political humor from the British
political elite to that of the new nation were both halting and ambivalent, reflecting the
conflict between the infant country’s Old World pedigree and its adamant strivings for
independence. Newfound republican freedoms still vied with time-honored deference to
political and religious authority in the minds of Americans, especially during the formative
years of Constitutional debate, popular rebellions, and foreign threats. From the signing of
the Treaty of Paris in 1783 to that of the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, it was not at all certain
initially who constituted the elite or, later, whether it would long survive; therefore tolerance
for any dissent that might further weaken the country was often thin at best. As former
subjects, Americans grappled with their simultaneous loathing of tribute and their
psychology of fascination with empire, aristocracy, and titles. Franklin himself had hoped
for reconciliation with England as late as 1775.37 Immediately after George Washington’s
35 Ibid., 11.
36 “Anecdotes Relative to Dr. Franklin,” William Temple Franklin, ed., Memoirs of Benjamin Franklin quoted in
Paul M. Zall, ed., Ben Franklin Laughing: Anecdotes from Original Sources by and About Benjamin Franklin
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 130.
37 Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 147-51.
inauguration in 1789, the Senate wrestled at length over what to call the new president. A
committee suggested “His Highness the President of the United States of America and
Protector of the Rights of the Same.”38 John Adams, who concurred with the committee in
believing that a reverence for titles ran deep in human nature, favored the briefer but no less
regal appellation: “His Majesty the President.”39 Most new Americans remained captivated
by nobility and rank—especially those best positioned to define the institutions of political
power in the United States—and they were accustomed to either paying deference or having
others defer to them. For all their talk of equality, these were, after all, still the descendants
of those who had convicted one Richard Barnes of “base and detracting speeches concerning
the governor” in 1625 and, prior to banishing him from Virginia, had his arms broken and his
tongue “bored through with an awl.”40 Patience for political criticism—even that ostensibly
couched in the pleasantries of good humor—was scanty. George Washington, whose
deification as the gentleman commander of the Revolution significantly exempted him from
the heroic model lovingly teased in almanacs, famously modeled the rules of conduct that
many assiduously sought to follow. Among them was his self-admonition to “mock not, nor
jest at anything of importance; break no jests that are sharp-biting, and, if you deliver
anything witty and pleasant, abstain from laughing thereat yourself.”41 The Sedition Act of
1798, which prohibited the “uttering or publishing [of] any false, scandalous, and malicious
writing or writings against the government of the United States,…or the President,”
presented a further chilling counterpoint to the Constitution’s First Amendment rights.42
Although such ambivalence toward authority and dissent continued to a large degree
until the second half of the twentieth century, the cut and thrust of a maturing political
discourse nevertheless ensured that eventually ridicule of the president did grow in direct
proportion to the stability and power of the Republic, and by the time Charles Browne took
his first job as a printer’s apprentice for the Skowhegan (Maine) Clarion in the mid-1840s,
presidential humor was firmly the purview of the fourth estate. Even Washington—no
longer the leader of popular revolution after his election, now the protector of
institutionalized power—suffered the slings and arrows of an increasingly partisan press.
38 David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 405. 39 Ibid., 406.
40 Starr, The Creation of the Media, 56. 41 D. H. Montgomery, The Beginner's American History (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1898). 42 Sedition Act, Public Law 74, 5th Cong., 2d sess. (14 July 1798).
Editorial cartoonists began earning their long and well-documented reputation for
presidential ridicule with an anonymous caricature in 1789 called "The Entry" that showed a
messianic Washington on a donkey being led into New York by his aide David Humphreys,
with an accompanying couplet that read, "The glorious time has come to pass, when David
shall conduct an ass."43 Revolutionary War officer John Armstrong wrote to General Horatio
Gates advising the ever-decorous Washington to meet such attacks “with firmness and good
nature,” counsel that would be echoed by future presidential advisors, common Americans,
and comedians down to the present day.44 In reality, the unavoidable political passions
endemic to democracy made such humor part of the American landscape from the very
beginning, cultural sensitivities and tradition notwithstanding.
This paradoxical reverence for both radical egalitarianism and conventional
aristocracy was at the heart of America’s dual revolution during the final decades of the
eighteenth century and it remains foundational to political humor to the present day. As
Tocqueville observed in 1835, Americans could see no “middle course between the
sovereignty of all and the absolute power of one man,” yet in their passion for equality they
naturally sought to be recognized as strong and respected. Such simultaneous striving for
equality and distinction, Tocqueville continues, “tends to elevate the little man to the rank of
the great [and]…leads the weak to want to drag the strong down to their level.”45 Although
these social maneuverings are visible in the heroic motif of the almanacs and jest-books, they
inspired a new generation of humorists in more purposeful and sophisticated ways as the new
nation began to coalesce during the early 1800s. James Kirke Paulding, T.B. Thorpe, George
Washington Harris, and others began to portray the American everyman in all his rustic
earthiness through tall tales and pronouncements of cracker-barrel wisdom. The American
frontiersman at the center of this humor became an icon who danced merrily and confidently
along the precarious middle course between popular sovereignty and individual supremacy,
one who—in his sagacious simplicity—was the genius fool, the simple man on the verge of
43 Stephen Hess and Sandy Northrop, Drawn & Quartered: The History of American Political Cartoons
(Montgomery, Ala.: Elliott & Clark, 1996), 37-8.
45 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 49.
This archetypical character took a decidedly political turn with the humor of Seba
Smith. Born in Buckfield, Maine in 1792, Smith was a journalist and publisher who founded
the first daily newspaper printed north or east of Boston, the Portland Daily Courier, and
with it, gave himself a vehicle for exposing the confused and regularly ridiculous doings of
Maine politics—and by extension—national government as well. In 1830, with a nod to the
regional characters developed by “southwestern” humorists such as Thorpe and others of his
contemporaries, Smith invented Jack Downing, a simple Yankee farm lad who stumbles into
the political fray and becomes nothing less than the confidant of presidents from Andrew
Jackson to Franklin Pierce. As Downing recalled later in his faux memoir, My Thirty Years
Out of the Senate, the odyssey began in 1829 when the impulsive and adventurous young
Jack Downing “tackled up the old horse,…packed in a load of ax-handles and a few notions
[to sell]…and drove off for [Maine’s largest city,] Portland”:
I hadn’t been in Portland long before I happened to blunder
into the Legislater; and I believe that was the beginning of my
good luck. I see such queer kinds of carrying on there that I
couldn’t help setting down and writing to cousin Ephraim to
tell uncle Joshua about it…. So I went to the editor of the
Portland Courier and asked him if he would send it…and fact,
he went right to work and printed it in the Courier large as
life…. Well, this kind of got me right into public life at once;
and I’ve been in public life ever since, and have been writing
letters and rising up along gradually, one step after another, till
I’ve got up along side of the President, and am talked of now
pretty strong for President myself, and have been nominated in
a good many of the first papers of the country.46
This tale of Downing’s introduction to political life is formative to presidential
humor. The image of a rustic coming to town looking to sell ax handles, “mother’s cheese,
and cousin Nabby’s bundle of footings [stockings],” then strolling into the Maine legislature,
being quickly recognized as one of the keenest minds in the room, and soon being propelled
to a stellar political career, projects an incongruity that was at once ridiculous and completely
plausible in the liminoid democracy of 1830s America.47 With his ability to quickly and
naturally transition from bumpkin to presidential aide and then to presidential contender, he
illustrated for Americans not only the relatively short distance between these stations, but
46 Seba Smith, My Thirty Years out of the Senate (New York: Oaksmith, 1859), 33-4. 47 Ibid., 36.
indeed their comical equivalence. In one letter written during Andrew Jackson’s
sensationally popular tour of the Northeast in 1833, the loyal Downing reported that he even
shook hands for the exhausted president by standing behind Old Hickory and extending his
arm under Jackson’s, with the throngs of star-struck well-wishers none the wiser.48 In his
coming “up along side of the President” (effortlessly attaining the ranks of captain and major
in the process) Smith’s Downing/everyman increasingly subsumed the presidency itself; the
common citizen rose to greatness even as the president’s fatigue revealed the human
limitations of executive power. Downing’s close dances with the presidency—and their
contradictory signals as to who was leading and who was following—anticipated the fictional
association between Artemus Ward and Abraham Lincoln one generation later, but even
more significantly, they set the stage for the work of future comics who would get their
laughs and earn their livings exploiting a foundational joke of American political culture,
namely the apparently ridiculous contradiction of granting someone unequal power over a
nation of equals. Jack Downing’s exploits also heralded in print the later live performances
of presidential impersonation and the mock presidential campaigns by comedians from Will
Rogers in the 1920s to Pat Paulsen and his hilariously deadpan crusades for the White House
in 1968 and 1972.
In 1834—one year after Jack Downing and Andrew Jackson’s tour through the
Northeast, fewer than twenty miles from Seba Smith’s native Buckfield, and in the very
shadow of Downing’s imaginary hometown of Downingville, Charles Farrar Browne was
born in Waterford, Maine. The proximity represented more than mere coincidence; the
dynamic Maine frontier—emblematic of the fragile compromise between slavery and
abolition since its admission to the Union in 1820, and still on the threshold between
settlement and wilderness—seemed to beget humor as a means of affording its inhabitants a
way to reconcile the region’s cultural contradictions as well as rebel against them.
Similarities to Smith seeped into much of Browne’s career. He was apprenticed to a
printer at the age of thirteen and was completely steeped in the newspaper business as a type
compositor, reporter, and editor by the time he was 23. Like Smith and many of his
countrymen (and reminiscent of Jack Downing) he failed to see his future in his rural origins
and instead gravitated toward the burgeoning political and cultural spheres of urban life,
48 Ibid., 207.
traveling to Boston where he wrote his first pieces for the humor weekly The Carpet-Bag and
then—upon its demise—to Tiffin, Ohio, then Toledo, and eventually to Cleveland, where he
became city editor at the Plain Dealer. He reveled in the discourse and debate that seemed to
explode out of newsrooms, bars, and courthouses, and he found great comedy in the melee.
At the Toledo Commercial he began to write humorous bits of sarcasm regularly ridiculing
the city’s political confusions, opting—according to one biographer—for good-natured
humor to make his arguments, whereas the rival Toledo Blade chose “violent vituperation.”49
Browne’s comical strategy earned the Commercial more readers and him the beginnings of a
following. While at the Plain Dealer, he again followed Seba Smith and other humorists of
the day when he began to cloak his jests at American politics and culture in pseudonym,
namely in the guise of a genial if semiliterate “Old Showman” named Artemus Ward, who
hailed from the fictional but quintessential American town of Baldinsville, Indiana.
Browne’s indebtedness to Seba Smith is extensive, to be sure, but he would build upon
Smith’s precedents to revolutionize the performance of humor and to connect Americans to
the political power of laughter.
Artemus Ward gained national fame during Browne’s three years at the Plain Dealer,
thanks to the continued meteoric rise of newspaper distribution and voracious readership. By
1860 the paper’s daily circulation was more than 65,000 copies in a city that numbered only
43,000 people and in a wider region that also sustained four other dailies. Even more
significantly, the humor of Artemus Ward stretched across the country thanks to the most
widespread national postal system in the world and legislation that not only gave newspapers
deeply discounted postage rates, but also allowed for the free exchange of material in the
interest of encouraging a national news network and a more informed populace.50 Readers
from California to Browne’s home state of Maine began to follow the humorous musings of
the Old Showman, who traveled from town to town with his eccentric menagerie of oddities,
including “three moral Bares, a Kangaroo,…wax figgers of G. Washington… [and] several
miscellanyus moral wax statoots…ekalled by few & exceld by none,” all the while waxing
on the events of the day, political and otherwise.51 Artemus Ward was becoming a star, and
49 Artemus Ward, The Complete Works of Artemus Ward, (Charles Farrar Browne) (New York: G. W.
Dillingham Co., 1898), 4.
50 Starr, The Creation of the Media, 88-90. 51 Ward, Artemus Ward: His Book, 17-18.
while his comedic celebrity was not as legendary as the mythic status bestowed on Benjamin
Franklin a half-century before, it was more widespread thanks to the increasing ubiquity and
sophistication of print capitalism. As the presidential election of 1860 approached, it was
likely that at least as many Americans had heard of Artemus Ward as knew of Abraham
Yet few knew Charles Browne. The free newspaper exchange of the day precluded
any hope for royalties from his Artemus Ward material and, as city editor of the Plain
Dealer, he earned only a paltry fourteen dollars a week.52 He began to entertain the prospect
of taking his Old Showman on the road via live performance. After a final attempt to
negotiate with Plain Dealer publisher J. W. Gray to keep Browne in Cleveland and Ward
exclusively in print (Browne offered to sell the Artemus Ward brand to the paper for $1,200
a year; Gray refused), Browne left Ohio for New York City and what his alter ego called “the
show bizniss.”53 His homely looks and soft-spoken demeanor notwithstanding, there he
believed he could earn himself the notoriety that had always captivated him (and that Ward
supplied only vicariously), and could also earn a much better living, perhaps even attain real
wealth. Humor now had proven commercial value in America, and so Browne did as
thousands of others were doing in this impatient and opportunistic country on the make: he
recreated himself in his own sovereign image.
For all his apparent confidence, Browne’s romance with performance was an uneasy
one for several reasons. He had been enthralled by the stage since his days in Boston. He
knew every play and kept happy company with the actors and artists of the day, but doubts
about joining their ranks plagued him. He was, by nature, painfully shy. In Ohio he had
once been unexpectedly called upon to speak at a banquet and found he could only sit in his
chair shaking his head. In the next day’s paper, safely back behind the pen, he managed a
hilarious recovery when he wrote, “’We scorn the imputation of vanity, but we say our
speech was a dignified and striking effort. In answer to a “response” call, we spoke
felicitously as follows,’ and the ‘as follows’ was three column-inches of blank space with
‘immense and prolonged applause’ at the bottom.”54 Determined to conquer his fears, he
purchased a copy of The Western Orator, a popular release that cashed in on the new
52 Pullen, Comic Relief, 27. 53 Ward, Artemus Ward: His Book, 18. 54 “Our Speech,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, 18 January 1859. Quoted in Pullen, Comic Relief, 29.
popularity of public speaking, and he began to learn the basics in anticipation of his new
Browne’s other misgivings about performance reflected in microcosm one of the
nation’s most enduring dilemmas. Born into a staunchly Puritanical family, he was deeply
influenced, even chastened by this part of his heritage, yet it was predictably at odds with his
fascination for the stage. As Artemus Ward, Browne later declared, “I believe we are
descendid from the Puritins, who nobly fled from a land of despitism to a land of freedim,
where they could not only enjoy their own religion, but prevent everybody else from enjoyin
his.”55 Such offhand jabs aside, he considered his religious roots with a mixture of
veneration and satire—a tension he was never able to fully reconcile. At the same time, this
conservatism instilled in him a deeply etched work ethic that drove his sense of perfectionism
and a feverish performance schedule that no doubt led to his early death. He was enthralled
by stage life but was never fully convinced that such performance was entirely respectable.
Much of the nation shared his reticence. Americans still considered the phrase “the
legitimate theatre” to be something of an oxymoron. The growing popularity of the theatre
during the mid-nineteenth century—both high and low brow—was still countered by
longstanding prescriptions against it.56 Anti-stage laws prohibiting plays still held sway in
some parts of New England. In 1778, the Second Continental Congress had resolved that
because “frequenting play houses and theatrical entertainments has a fatal tendency to divert
the minds of the people from a due attention to… the preservation of their liberties,” any
government official found attending such shows “shall be deemed unworthy to hold…office,
and shall be accordingly dismissed.”57 After extended debate, the resolution was only
narrowly defeated. During the early nineteenth century, moral reformer Henry Ward
Beecher condemned the theatre—explicitly recognizing its liminal potential—when he
described it as “the gate of debauchery…[and] the door to all the sinks of iniquity.”58 After
all, such displays and those who performed them challenged established orthodoxies where
55 Artemus Ward quoted in Ibid., 16.
56 For the popularity of nineteenth-century stage performance and its use in the culture wars of the time, see
Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow / Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1988).
57 Worthington C. Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington, D.C.: 1904-
58 Charles Chester Cole, The Social Ideas of the Northern Evangelists, 1826-1860 (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1954), 113.
gender, authority, and propriety in general were concerned. Browne would have to address
this lingering antipathy if he hoped to attract an audience.
His solution revolutionized popular performance and inaugurated the standup
comedic form in America. Whereas “theatricals” that entertained were still dubious, “moral
lectures” that edified and promoted virtue were enthusiastically celebrated. Beecher, Horace
Greeley, and legions of others—galvanized to action by the Great Awakening, aghast at the
host of social ills they saw besieging the nation, and increasingly adamant over the abolition
of slavery—took to the public lecture platform and drew tremendous crowds, riding the
cresting tide of the lyceum and athenaeum movements. Indeed, much of Artemus Ward’s
humor in print sprang from the incongruous image of the Old Showman’s rustic ignorance
juxtaposed with the “grate Moral Entertainment” he offered with his traveling collection of
exotic animals and wax figures (which included the twelve apostles and other biblical
characters).59 When Browne took to the stage for the first time in late 1861, he decided not
to “act” the persona of Artemus Ward, the portly rustic with the receding hairline, side-show
dress, and the delightfully twisted way with words. He put on no make-up, costume, or vocal
affectation; he was not “performing” per se. Instead, although Ward got all the billing,
Browne appeared as himself: quiet, gaunt, bookish, and dressed in the dour garb of the
lecturer. He appeared intent on lecturing; indeed he did lecture, but the frolicsome nonsense
that he dispensed—as he stood before the crowd addressing them directly—did not edify;
rather—in tweaking both the form and content of the public lecture—it gradually became
clear that his purpose was to delight. He often would take to the podium and stand staring at
the audience for long moments of uncomfortable silence as if he had forgotten his lines.
Soon the crowd would begin to murmur, squirm, or cough nervously, and just as the din was
rising toward crescendo he would chide: “Ladies and gentlemen. When you have finished
with this unseemly interruption, I shall be glad to continue.”60 In parodying the lecture in a
daring yet disarming and wholly unprecedented way, Browne prophesied the coming of a
new type of performance and a new type of performer: the standup comedian, whose
commentary could both mitigate the troubles of daily life and critique the status quo using
the guerilla tactics of humor. By all appearances, Browne was a minister/protector of the
59 Ward, The Complete Works of Artemus Ward, 59. 60 Pullen, Comic Relief, 46-8.
ritualized conventions of the day with his apparent homage to the lecture form, but in fact he
was choreographing a playful new brand of cultural criticism and audiences eagerly joined in
Browne debuted in Connecticut and Massachusetts beginning in late November 1861,
and the Boston press reported that audiences were “kept in a constant roar of laughter.”61
Appropriately enough, his New York City premier a few weeks later took place at Clinton
Hall, which stood on the site of the Astor Place Opera House, the very spot where the
volatility of theatre’s liminal potential had exploded in 1849 when the partisan audiences of
British actor Charles Macready and American Edwin Forrest had rioted over portrayals of
class and nationalism, killing twenty-two and wounding more than one hundred and fifty.
Browne’s appearance in American popular culture is no less significant for the fact that he
prompted laughter rather than violence.
His “lecture” title, “Babes in the Wood,” was itself a comedic misdirection, for
Browne never quite got around to discussing the classic folktale, although the name was
appropriate given his mischievous manipulation of a nascent American audience learning to
laugh at its virtues, quirks, and inconsistencies in the midst of national crisis. He righteously
endorsed the concept of temperance hotels, for example, although he lamented that “they sell
worse liquor than any other kind of hotels.”62 Everyone—whether Yankee or Confederate,
white or black, male or female—seemed to fall prey to his genial ridicule. Religious fervor
also took it on the chin. The Quakers were targets; so were the Mormons, both in Browne’s
onstage references to polygamy and on the complimentary passes he issued for a later
show—“Artemus Ward Among the Mormons”—which read: “Admit the Bearer and One
Wife. Yours Trooly, A. Ward.”63 Purveyed as it was—with such disarming and selfeffacing good cheer—audiences embraced Ward’s foolishness with enthusiasm, even the
Mormons, who welcomed him hospitably to Salt Lake City during his western tour in early
1864 and sanctioned his use of the local hall for a performance that included Brigham Young
beaming from the audience.64
61 “Artemus Ward—Mr. Charles F. Browne’s Lecture,” Boston Daily Advertiser, 7 December 1861. Quoted in
62 Artemus Ward, T. W. Robertson, and Edward P. Hingston, Artemus Ward's Lecture (London: J. C. Hotten,
63 Ward, The Complete Works of Artemus Ward, 21. 64 Pullen, Comic Relief, 106.
More orthodox American boorishness also came under attack. Crowds heard the
same sort of jibes from the stage that they appreciated from the pages of Ward’s letters and
essays, such as the story of the oafish fellow in Utica, New York, who physically attacked
the Old Showman’s collection of wax figures depicting the Last Supper, pummeling the
effigy of Judas Iscariot while demanding of Ward: “What did you bring this pussylanermus
cuss here fur?”
“You egrejus ass,” shouted Ward, “that air’s a wax figger—a representashun of the
That’s all very well for you to say, but I can tell you, old man, that Judas Iscarrot
can’t show hisself in Utiky with impunerty by a darn site!”65
This was one of Browne’s most popular stories. Through such silliness, recounted in
print or performance, Americans were learning to laugh at each other in public and, in
recognizing their own contributions to the eclectic and often eccentric national personality,
they were also beginning to laugh at themselves as the object of the joke.
Even the president was laughing. Abraham Lincoln never attended “The Babes in the
Wood” or any of Browne’s shows, but he was a devotee of his print humor. When Artemus
Ward, His Book, a collection of the Old Showman’s writings, appeared in May 1862, Lincoln
acquired one of the 40,000 copies and consulted it often. He reportedly began the cabinet
meeting of September 22 by buoyantly reading aloud the tale about the “High-Handed
Outrage at Utica” before turning to the main business of the meeting: the Emancipation
Proclamation.66 Lincoln had a three-way perspective on humor. As a reader and citizen, he
knew what his fellow citizens were discovering, namely humor’s ability to momentarily
anesthetize the intractable dilemmas of the day and to salve the despair of a horrific war. As
president of the Union, he appreciated this more than anyone. Finally, as Browne’s fellow
humorist, Lincoln understood the use of humor to accumulate political if not economic
capital. He had relied on getting laughs since his earliest days to enrich his political
prospects, compensate for what has been described as his almost majestic physical ugliness,
and—like Browne—to ward off the cold disadvantages of a meager rural upbringing.67
65 “High-Handed Outrage at Utica” in Ward, The Complete Works of Artemus Ward, 36-7. 66 Pullen, Comic Relief, 1-3. 67 Charles E. Schutz, Political Humor: From Aristophanes to Sam Ervin (Rutherford [N.J.]: Fairleigh Dickinson
University Press, 1977), 191.
Typically gentle and good-natured, Lincoln’s humor was wide-ranging and sophisticated. He
used it famously to endear himself to the electorate and to affably disarm foes and, less
frequently but no less effectively, he employed invective to mock detractors. When an early
campaign speech was repeatedly interrupted by a critic in the audience, Lincoln retaliated:
I don’t object to being interrupted with sensible questions, but I
must say that my boisterous friend does not always make
inquiries which properly come under that head. He says he is
afflicted with headaches, at which I don’t wonder, as it is a
well-known fact that nature abhors a vacuum, and takes her
own way of demonstrating it.68
Lincoln could squelch a heckler as well as any other standup comedian.
Like his fellow Americans, Lincoln also would have recognized himself among
Browne’s targets and, given his own experience as a humorist, he no doubt reveled in the
role. The account of the outrage at Utica in Artemus Ward, His Book was only pages away
from the fanciful “Interview with President Lincoln” that began this chapter. The meeting—
with the helpless president fairly violated by a whirlwind of office-seekers crawling down his
chimney, between his legs, and having to be protected by the valiant showman—was pure
farce, and Lincoln was at its center. The idea that the President of the United States was
powerless but for the authority of a comedian, or that he could just as easily be on the
receiving end of a joke as any anonymous fool in Utica may have been gaining traction since
the days of Seba Smith, but Browne’s work made a wider mass market much more receptive
to such notions.
And Browne did even more; he shared the stage with the president. Lincoln may also
have read Browne’s 1863 contribution to Vanity Fair entitled “Artemus Ward in
Washington,” which included a visit to the White House:
I called on Abe. He received me kindly. I handed him my
umbreller, and told him I’d have a check for it if he pleased.
“That,” sed he, “puts me in mind of a little story. There was a
man, out in our parts who was so mean that he took his wife’s
coffin out of the back winder for fear he would rub the paint
off the doorway. Wall, about this time there was a man in a
adjacent town who had a green cotton umbreller.”
“Did it fit him well? Was it custom made? Was he measured
68 Ibid., 45.
“Measured for what?” said Abe.
“Wall, as I was sayin,” continnered the President, treatin the
interruption with apparent contempt, “this man sed he’d known
that there umbreller ever since it was a pyrasol. Ha, ha, ha!”
“Yes,” sed I, larfin in a respectful manner, “but what has this
man with the umbreller to do with the man who took his wife’s
coffin out of the back winder?”
“To be sure,” said Abe—“what was it? I must have got two
stories mixed together, which puts me in mind of another lit—“
“Never mind, Your Excellency….” I took my departer.
“Good-bye, old sweetness!” sed Abe, shakin me cordgully by
“Adoo, my Prahayrie flower!” I replied, and made my exit.69
This merry patter is proto-vaudevillian. Here were two comedians sharing the limelight and
vying for laughs. In this small corner of Browne’s world, the president was the comic and
the comic willingly played the foil, at least until the limits of presidential talent killed the
joke and thus became the joke. As they said their silly, fawning goodbyes—bosom buddies
after all—Americans laughed at both comedians, one—“His Excellency” the president—
having been humbled to the rank of showman, the other elevated to the partner of presidents.
Browne and Lincoln never met and there is no evidence that Ward’s treatments of the
president ever went beyond the printed page into Browne’s live performances. Still, through
their merry fictional associations (Figure 1), they shared the stage as equals in the popular
American imagination, however briefly, each benefiting from the other’s celebrity. The
showman gained political legitimacy as the politician learned the benefits of showmanship.
At the conclusion of the manic “Interview with President Lincoln,” the grateful presidentelect asked Artemus Ward who should fill his cabinet:
69 Ward, The Complete Works of Artemus Ward, 430-1.
Figure 1. "An interview with President Lincoln" illustrated for The
Complete Works of Artemus Ward. The artist is unknown.
Fill it up with Showmen, sir! Showmen, is devoid of politics.
They hain’t got any principles. They know how to cater for the
public. They know what the public wants, North & South.
Showmen, sir, is honest men.70
Showmen may have been in short supply in Lincoln’s cabinet, but the exigencies of the
twentieth century and mass media channels of radio and television ensured that future
presidents would take heed of Ward’s advice themselves.
Neither Charles Browne nor Artemus Ward is well remembered, but Browne’s legacy
is ubiquitous in American culture. He refined what the almanac jesters had first discovered
during the Revolutionary era and Seba Smith had mined in the 1830s: humor’s power not
only to equate the egalitarian and the authoritarian impulses within a democracy, but also to
expose bare humanity while simultaneously celebrating it. Browne demonstrated this not
only with his gentle mocking of the presidency, but also with his ridicule of the Mormons
and the zealot from Utica, even of those who presumed the authority to elevate themselves
onto the lecture platform. He exposed the common foibles of those who would claim in
some way to have special access to or province over the American ideals of freedom and
justice. He articulated for a growing American public what literature scholar Louis Rubin,
Jr. later termed “the Great American Joke,” that is the distinctly American and inherently
70 Ibid., 104.
laughable incongruity between the promise of unalloyed independence and the base realities
of human nature that impose all manner of limitations on it.71 Americans may have imbued
their nation with the most perfect of ambitions, yet they have entrusted their attainment to
imperfect creatures like themselves. Ward, and later his student Mark Twain, brought the
Great American Joke before a public increasingly torn between denying this incongruity and
bursting into laughter over it.
What is more, Browne was the first to bring live comedy to the American
marketplace in a concerted widespread form, both confirming and commercializing French
philosopher Henri Bergson’s observation that laughter “appears to stand in need of an
echo…. Our laughter is always the laughter of a group.”72 As the conduits by which
American humor was transferred from the page to the stage, Charles Browne and Artemus
Ward taught Americans to laugh in community and to “entertain” themselves, a verb which
means, Victor Turner reminds us, “to hold [possibilities] between,” at the limen.73 In the
echoes of Browne’s words and their own laughter, Americans heard themselves. The
popularity of his humorous lectures would later mix with immigrant styles and other
influences to render a wholly American form: standup comedy. An American company of
comedians—citizens and presidents, led by the new standup humorists—was performing
itself into existence.
71 Rubin, "The Great American Joke."
72 Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred
Rothwell (New York: MacMillan Company, 1924), 4.
73 Turner, The Anthropology of Performance, 41.
If Charles Browne was the first sparkling meteor of political standup comedy to
appear over the American landscape, Samuel Clemens was the comet. While Browne’s fame
as Artemus Ward was as brilliant as it was short-lived, Clemens’ radiance as Mark Twain
burned on relentlessly into the twentieth century; his life’s arc was recognized by the country
and much of the rest of the world as both wholly unique and quintessentially American.
Author and critic William Dean Howells once described Browne as “the humorist who first
gave the world a taste of the humor that characterizes the whole American people.”74 For
another biographer, Browne’s comedy defined “the genus American” in this respect.75
Twain refined that humorous taste, seasoning it with irony and cynicism without destroying
the staple that was at the center of the Great American Joke: an archetypical—if at times
strained—faith in the American ideal. Twain guided the national humor through the
profound social crises of nineteenth century American imperialism, industrialization, and
their attendant dehumanization. Also like a comet, therefore, the white light of Twain’s
humor, upon closer inspection, was peppered with darker truths collected from the aggregate
of the human and the distinctively American condition. To much of his audience, as Twain
himself admitted, his humor often gave way to black fury over the greed and political
corruption he saw consuming the nation. For presiding over this period—when the country’s
Victorian sensibilities seemed most at odds with the hard realities of inequality,
overcrowding, and grinding poverty—he became, for Howells, “the Lincoln of our
literature.”76 Through Twain’s articles, letters, short stories, books, and performances, “the
genus American” first articulated by Browne evolved into a more complexly funny species.
Yet, as Howells’ description indicates, Twain’s genius was fundamentally literary.
Although he delivered nearly a thousand lectures and speeches, he was first and foremost a
writer whose theatrics—his drawling voice, everyman persona that identified him as neither
an easterner nor entirely western, and even, in later years, his signature white suit—were
74 William Dean Howells quoted in Pullen, Comic Relief, 26. 75 Ward, The Complete Works of Artemus Ward, 25. 76 Howells quoted in Fred Kaplan, The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 3.
mostly secondary to his prose and to the literary celebrity that made him the most famous
humorist in American history. Once his fame as a writer was firmly established in the early
1870s, he largely spurned the lecture circuit and returned to it only out of economic necessity
or to promote a new book. Likewise, his ridicule of American political institutions, including
the presidency, while extensive and cutting, emanated mostly from print and indirectly from
the mouths of the characters that peopled his fiction, such as Huck Finn or corrupt Senator
Abner Dilworthy in The Gilded Age.
Twain’s legendary contributions to American humor have been analyzed at great
length elsewhere. For the purposes of this study, he is most significant for the role he played
in perpetuating and further popularizing Charles Browne’s legacy of live performance.
Twain firmly establishing the comedian as a formidable cultural force in American society.
His influence and his proximity to business leaders, presidents, and the literati of the day lent
unprecedented legitimacy to humor as social criticism. Not only did this make Twain one of
the most influential personalities of his day, but it also paved the way for Will Rogers, the
cowboy comedian who dominated popular and political culture in the early twentieth
century, to earn even greater authority within mass culture.
Twain the luminary shone on other humorists as well. One of these was syndicated
columnist Finley Peter Dunne. In the guise and brogue of Martin Dooley, a sagacious
barkeep in the Sixth Ward of industrial Chicago’s South Side, Dunne invited Americans to
listen in on the daily conversations concerning the machine politics of the new American
metropolis, beginning in the late 1800s. Chicago and the other largest cities no longer were
dominated by Anglo Saxons, but increasingly by Irish arrivals who continued to enter the
country along with the millions of “new immigrants” from southern and eastern Europe who
arrived during the second half of the century. Through Mr. Dooley, Dunne’s political humor
linked these new working class Americans to their leaders, including their presidents,
particularly William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, with whom Dunne developed a
close if not always harmonious relationship. Mr. Dooley did not appear on stage; Dunne was
a writer, after all, and always maintained, in Mr. Dooley’s signature brogue, that “th’ hand
that rocks th’ fountain pen is th’ hand that rules th’ wurruld.”77 Still, for millions of readers
who could practically hear the bartender’s wise and funny monologues thanks to Dunne’s
77 Finley Peter Dunne quoted in Grace Eckley, Finley Peter Dunne (Boston: Twayne, 1981), 34.
faithful reproduction of the neighborhood dialect on paper, the Chicago saloon on “Archey
Road” became Dunne’s theater, Mr. Dooley was his leading player, and a more modern and
diverse urban political show began to be performed there.
In many ways, Mark Twain (and Mr. Dooley less directly) preserved and built on the
performing legacy of Artemus Ward during the four decades following the Civil War. The
American audience and the presidency saw even more dramatic change. The cultural shifts
that accompanied the enormous demographic and other social upheavals brought on by the
surges in population and industrialization radically changed the ways that an increasingly
urban America worked and played. All manner of entertainments and amusements were born
out of cultural necessity and economic opportunity to accommodate the demands and the
pocketbooks of a massive and diverse working class. The infant “show bizniss” of Artemus
Ward’s day began to gain large-scale economic traction and there arose a viable and
increasingly accepted—if not yet a completely legitimate—entertainment industry. By the
1870s, an enormously wide array of plays, concerts, melodramas, and storefront “museums”
offered increasing levels of pure diversion along with remnants of the edification promised
by the lyceum lecture, which continued to be popular. By the following decade, vaudeville
had begun to assert its dominance as the attraction of choice for a rapidly urbanizing
America, with its affordable pricing and family-friendly policies that began to attract women
and middle class audiences. Vaudeville reigned for the next fifty years. As for the
presidency, it was slowly forced to become more visible and accessible in response to the
rapid improvements in media technology—particularly in printing and photography—along
with the continued expansion of newspaper and magazine circulation. McKinley’s
administration, and especially Roosevelt’s, began to interact with the press and, by extension,
with the American public more frequently, out of necessity in McKinley’s case, but more out
of effusive personality and deliberate calculation in Roosevelt’s. The birth of the modern
audience and that of the modern presidency occurred in tandem. It was a time when
American citizens, presidents, and the infant profession of political standup comedy were
defining themselves and their relationships to one another in light of the fluid demands made
by changing demographics, fresh technologies, and new cultural challenges presented by a
burgeoning industrial nation.
As a performer, Mark Twain was as much the professional progeny of Artemus Ward
as he was the progenitor of a new form of live humorous performance. Twain was not only
Ward’s immediate heir; he was his student. Samuel Clemens and Charles Browne became
fast friends in late 1863 when Browne paused for several days in Virginia City, Nevada as
part of a triumphant western tour at the height of his popularity. Clemens was a reporter for
the Territorial Enterprise, Nevada’s first and most successful newspaper, and had recently
begun to sign his more humorous articles “Mark Twain.” As was his custom as a veteran
printer and newspaperman, Browne’s first stop upon his arrival was to visit the local print
shop and newsroom to get the lay of the land and drum up free publicity, although by this
time in his career it was hardly necessary; his national celebrity had preceded him. Not only
was Twain assigned to write the advance notice of the lecture, he became the humorist’s
unofficial guide to the region for the next fortnight. On the night of the first lecture (popular
demand dictated that a second show be added), Twain took a seat in the “printer’s pew,” a
row of seats near the front of house reserved for the press and, according to a colleague, he
watched with his mouth agape at the performance in front of him, so entranced by Artemus
Ward’s technique that he would bellow with laughter only as the rest of the audience was
already quieting down.78 Afterward, he wrote that “the man who is capable of listening to
‘Babes in the Wood’ from beginning to end without laughing either inwardly or outwardly
must have done murder, or at least meditated it at some time during his life.”79 Fifteen years
later, when asked to assess Ward’s onstage humor in comparison to his own, Twain
maintained that “Babes in the Wood” was the funniest thing he had ever heard.80 By the time
Browne left Virginia City several days later, the comedian had convinced the writer to do
two things. The first was to send his stories east where Browne predicted they would be
embraced. The following spring, Twain sent him a tale entitled “Jim Smiley and his Jumping
Frog,” which was published the next year as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras
County” and the piece helped to launch Twain’s reputation as a national talent. Second, by
observing Browne in performance, Twain became more determined to take to the platform
himself. Artemus Ward’s lecture demonstrated how a master performer could completely
78 Pullen, Comic Relief, 82. 79 Fred W. Lorch, The Trouble Begins at Eight: Mark Twain's Lecture Tours (Ames: Iowa State University
Press, 1968), 15.
80 Mark Twain quoted in Mark Twain and Paul Fatout, Mark Twain Speaks for Himself (West Lafayette, Ind.:
Purdue University Press, 1978), 124.
capture an audience by the clever manipulation of technique and timing.81 Twain, seeing that
both fame and money could be earned by dispensing humor from the stage, resolved to
follow Browne’s lead.
Twain’s first opportunity came less than one month later when he addressed the
Nevada Territorial Legislature in a ceremony that required him to dance between the roles of
reporter, comedian, and a presidency of sorts. As a reporter charged with covering the
nascent state’s Constitutional Convention, he had become so popular with the legislators that
they elected him “President of the Third House” as the formal business of the convention
drew toward a close. In a move indicative of how humor was beginning to infiltrate the
American political sphere in more deliberate and accepted ways four decades after the work
of Seba Smith and others—most recently Artemus Ward—began to popularize a comic
approach, the Third House was a mock legislature created by the legitimate body and
charged with lampooning itself. The office of president was a purely honorary one;
nevertheless, a speech was expected. Twain delivered it at the end of January 1864, and
while no reliable record of his comments survives, save vague allusions to them in his own
review in the next day’s edition of the Enterprise, he did indicate the presence of the key
leadership of the convention among the sold-out crowd and he reveled in their congratulatory
response that “they would travel several miles to hear that message again.”82 Other
references to the speech indicate that he leveled some good-natured ridicule at Territorial
Governor James Nye, who was not present, but that his comments were taken kindly.83 In
the wake of the performance, which was billed as a benefit for the local Presbyterian church,
the writer-cum-president-cum-comic had raised two hundred dollars for the cause, had drawn
a bigger crowd than Artemus Ward a few weeks before, and had shown that not only was he
capable of delivering jokes at the expense of the local political elite, but also that an
enthusiastic audience was prepared to pay to hear them.84
Twain’s eagerness to establish himself as a writer monopolized his time, however,
and his more purposeful debut on the lecture circuit came two years later, following his
return from a plum assignment in the Sandwich Islands, where he had been sent by the
81 Lorch, The Trouble Begins at Eight, 16-7. 82 Ibid., 18.
83 Ibid., 20.
Sacramento Union to write about the exotic qualities of America’s new protectorate. In
October 1866, he relented to his friends’ insistence that he publicly talk about his
experiences, which had captivated readers in print. With a promise to mix “amusement with
instruction,” and a self-penned advertisement that advised “The doors open at 7 o’clock. The
Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock,” Twain delighted a capacity San Francisco crowd for just over
an hour with descriptions of exotic Hawaiian natives, zealous missionaries, and the volcano
of Kilauea.85 The response was sensational. Fellow writer Bret Harte celebrated Twain’s
triumphant arrival as a lecturer: “His humor…is…of the western character of ludicrous
exaggeration and audacious statement, which perhaps is more thoroughly national and
American than even the Yankee delineations of [James Russell] Lowell.”86 Twain found the
money good (he netted four hundred dollars from the evening’s performance) and discovered
that the laughter infused him with a sense of power and—unlike his writing—placed him in
live community with people whose response to his words he could immediately see and
hear.87 He initially found that he enjoyed his time onstage and he followed the San Francisco
appearance with a brief, frenetic tour of California and Nevada. When his mounting fame
convinced him—as it had Charles Browne—to move to New York City shortly thereafter, he
likewise appeared throughout the East, including at Cooper Union Institute in 1868 where
Abraham Lincoln’s national reputation had been established eight years before. The next
year he signed on with James Redpath, founder and co-owner of the Boston Lyceum Bureau,
the most prominent booking agency for lecture tours, and he kept to a busy schedule of
appearances until 1874. His popularity even prompted Thomas Nast, the political cartoonist
for Harper’s Weekly, to suggest an innovative scheme whereby the artist and the humorist
would appear together onstage, with Nast drawing illustrations in response to Twain’s
comments, all in full view of the audience. Twain declined the offer.88
Despite the success, Twain quickly came to detest the lecture circuit. More
specifically, he hated the strain and family separations that came with it and the distraction it
caused from what he termed his primary “’call’ to literature.”89 In 1870, with the lucrative
reception of his first book, The Innocents Abroad, he told Redpath that “I am not going to
85 Geoffrey C. Ward et al., Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), 54. 86 Bret Harte quoted in Ibid., 55.
87 Lorch, The Trouble Begins at Eight, 33-4. 88 Kaplan, The Singular Mark Twain, 289. 89 Twain quoted in Ward et al., Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography, 48.
lecture any more forever,” and while he did return to the stage and the after-dinner dais
frequently (in 1877 he proposed to Nast that they tour together; this time Nast declined), it
was usually because he needed the money.90
Mark Twain’s extensive and celebrated stage career is most significant in the context
of this study for its further popularizing and legitimizing of what Charles Browne’s “old
Showman” Artemus Ward had initiated during the mid 1860s. Browne had exploited the
media, the entertainment business, and the issues of his day to their accepted limits to
introduce a new national audience to the concept that a lone performer could use humor
legitimately and popularly to critique cultural assumptions, and he did so before audiences of
many hundred at a time. Only a few years later, Twain and his promoters were able to
further capitalize on these comparatively humble beginnings thanks to Twain’s enormous
talent and the rapid advances in print, promotion, and transportation that were equal to the
expansion of the nation itself. Whereas Artemus Ward, His Book was considered a bestseller
when it sold 40,000 copies in 1862, the publisher of Twain’s Innocents Abroad only began to
market his first book aggressively in 1869 after it had already topped 150,000 copies.91
Cooper Union Institute, the site of his first major eastern lecture, had a seating capacity of
1,500, and by the next year he was routinely appearing in theaters as large as Boston’s Music
Hall, which sat 2,500.92 By the 1870s, a much larger mass public than that which applauded
Artemus Ward was becoming increasingly comfortable with the notion of the standup
humorist as a fixture of popular culture and with the stage as the forum for commenting on
the funny incongruities of the human race in general and the American genre in particular.
This was true even if only a small fraction of Americans ever had the opportunity to see
Twain in performance and if few could afford the one to two-dollar ticket price. It was also
true even though many believed that, by the last years of his life, much of Twain’s humor
had been consumed by rage.
In The Mysterious Stranger, published posthumously in 1916, Mark Twain eloquently
articulated both the power of humor and humankind’s inability or unwillingness to use it:
You [humans] have a mongrel perception of humor, nothing
more….your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really
effective weapon—laughter. Power, money, persuasion,
90 Kaplan, The Singular Mark Twain, 257, 335. 91 Gregg Camfield, The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 296. 92 Kaplan, The Singular Mark Twain, 247.
supplication, persecution—these can lift at a colossal
humbug…but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a
blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand….Do
you ever use [it]? No; you leave it lying and rusting. As a
race, do you ever use it at all? No; you lack sense and the
By 1900, embittered by personal travails that included the sudden death of his daughter and
infuriated by his country’s growing love of empire, it appeared that Twain had lost, not the
sense or the courage to use humor, but the patience to play with it. He railed—without
attempting to craft any palliating humor—against the ills the United States seemed to be
embracing. He worked at length on a new book-length assault on racial violence in America
to be called The United States of Lyncherdom before ultimately abandoning the project. In
December 1900, he attacked what he considered the expropriation of the Philippines by the
United States and its eagerness to join with the British in colonizing as much of the world as
possible when he introduced Boer War hero Winston Churchill at a dinner by acidly praising
the English and Americans for being “kith and kin in war and sin.”94 When he was advised
by friends to temper his vitriol lest his still-adoring public be offended, Twain shot back:
I have always preached…if the humor came of its accord and
uninvited I have allowed it a place in my sermon, but I was not
writing the sermon for the sake of the humor. I should have
written the sermon just the same whether any humor applied
for admission or not.95
His opinion of the presidency had begun to sour three decades before. Early in his
career, Twain’s political loyalties were with the Republican party and, although his reporter’s
duties kept his allegiances largely secret, he supported Ulysses S. Grant’s election in 1868
and again in 1872. He continued to admire Grant personally even as he crafted The Gilded
Age, his satiric indictment of government corruption during the president’s administration,
and went on to publish Grant’s memoirs as the Civil War legend and discredited former
president raced to finish them before succumbing to throat cancer. He also advocated the
election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, but Hayes’ compromise win over Samuel J.
93 The Mysterious Stranger quoted in Arthur P. Dudden, ed., The Assault of Laughter: A Treasury of American
Political Humor (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1962), 523. 94 Twain quoted in Kaplan, The Singular Mark Twain, 583. 95 Twain quoted in Ward et al., Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography, 201.
Tilden, which appeared to come at the expense of Reconstruction efforts, disillusioned him.
In 1879, he revealed his mounting cynicism that the presidency could only attract the most
depraved and avaricious of men by satirically posing as a candidate himself in an article in
the New York Evening Post. The best way to get elected, he maintained, was to “own up in
advance to all the wickedness I have done,” and to that end he admitted that he once treed his
rheumatic grandfather, buried a dead aunt under a grapevine, and regarded the poor as so
much wasted material. “Cut up and properly canned,” he said with a satiric flourish
reminiscent of Jonathan Swift, “[they] might be made useful to fatten the natives of the
cannibal islands.” In concluding, he recommended himself as “a safe man—a man who
starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to be fiendish to the last.”96
By the mid 1890s, Twain was convinced that the Republican monopoly—save Grover
Cleveland’s Democratic administrations, which he endorsed—was leading the country
toward monarchy. “You hear much of the President of the United States,” he wrote. “[There
is] no such office. There is a President of the Republican party….The party, only, is
hereditary now, but the headship of it will be hereditary by and by, in a single family.”97 As
for William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, whose pro-business domestic priorities and
expansionist foreign policies he thought criminal, he could muster nothing but utterly serious
and “withering contempt.”98 In 1904, with Roosevelt elected in his own right, the new
American century seemingly a mere political continuation of the old, and just six years
before his own death, Twain proposed that William Dean Howells, publisher George Harvey,
and popular columnist Finley Peter Dunne, whom Twain admired, join him in forming the
“Damned Human Race Luncheon Club.” The group met only a few times as Twain the
comet dimmed and the darker elements of his mood overshadowed the lighter facets of his
humor. “If I could keep my faculty for humor uppermost I’d laugh the dogs out of the
country,” he wrote to Dunne. “But I can’t. I’m too mad.”99
If Mark Twain saw the yawning incongruities of the Great American Joke becoming
too wide for humor to bridge, Finley Peter Dunne considered literary satire and burlesque to
96 Mark Twain, “Mark Twain as a Presidential Candidate,” New York Evening Post, 9 June 1879, quoted in
Twain and Fatout, Mark Twain Speaks for Himself, 116-7. 97 Twain quoted in William M. Gibson, Theodore Roosevelt among the Humorists: W.D. Howells, Mark Twain,
and Mr. Dooley (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980), 35. 98 William Dean Howells quoted in Ibid., 22.
99 Twain quoted in Eckley, Finley Peter Dunne, 26.
be perhaps the only sure means for reconciling the booming growth of the country—
illustrated by that of his hometown Chicago—with the plight of the immigrant working class
that was fueling this growth without commensurate access to its benefits or to America’s
promises of equality. Through the sage philosophy of his comic alter ego, bartender Martin
Dooley, Dunne furthered what Charles Browne had intimated and Twain had further defined:
the role of the humorist as not merely a performer but also a public oracle. Dunne was not a
lecturer or entertainer, but Mr. Dooley’s performances in print are worth brief discussion for
both their significance in bringing an increasingly diverse American audience into closer
proximity with a national leadership that seemed, in many ways, to be more remote than
ever, and for their role in setting the stage for later standup comedians.
Mr. Dooley’s creator came by his Irish credentials honestly. Dunne was born in
Chicago in 1867 (the year of Charles Browne’s death) and was raised in a middle-class
parish on the near West Side in a family that reveled in discussing and participating in the
hurly-burly of city politics. He experienced a metamorphosis like those of Browne and
Samuel Clemens—one that seemingly was becoming the humorist’s modus operandi—and
went to work at seventeen for one of Chicago’s half-dozen daily newspapers where he
quickly made a name for himself covering the sports and police beats. During these years,
Chicago was likewise being transformed from the predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon
frontier town it had been at the time of Dunne’s birth to the country’s second largest city and
a teeming metropolis of profit and poverty, abuses and possibilities, where immigrants by
1890 constituted a majority of the population of nearly 1,100,000.100
Approximately 300,000 of these were Irish-American.101 To reach this audience,
Chicago Post managing editor Cornelius McAuliff offered to pay Dunne ten dollars apiece
for humorous features in Irish dialect that would at once showcase his already-evident wit
and help boost circulation.102 After first introducing his neighborhood saloon-keeper to
readers in late 1892, Dunne quickly understood what comedians before him had learned from
both the page and the stage: that the guise of Mr. Dooley and the apparent triviality of humor
100 James DeMuth, Small Town Chicago: The Comic Perspectives of Finley Peter Dunne, George Ade, Ring
Lardner (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1980), 6-9. 101 Ibid. 102 Stanley Trachtenberg, ed., American Humorists, 1800-1950 (Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research Co., 1982),
gave him both license to protest with relative impunity and the chance to endow a new and
more diverse urban society with a greater measure of cultural and political power.
Mr. Dooley was no simpleton. Although his homespun straightforwardness reminded
readers of Major Jack Downing, Artemus Ward, and other earlier cracker-barrel humorists,
several considerations testified to his special potency as a commentator for the Industrial
Age. First, he talked not as a clown on the margins of society but as a spokesman of a
vibrant and believable Irish-American community that labored hard and debated seriously the
issues that affected their daily lives. Dooley’s humor served as a conduit, a mediator
between the democratic principles that seemed for many long-standing Americans to have
lost their luster during the complex Gilded Age and the less complicated ethics and morality
of a new generation of Americans freshly arrived and for whom the country’s possibilities
still rose aborning. For example, he voiced new celebration for American ideals even as he
cherished Irish distinctiveness and ridiculed the homogenizing prejudices that tended to come
I was afraid I wasn’t goin’ to assimilate with th’ airlyer pilgrim
fathers an’ th’ instichoochins iv th’ counthry, but I soon found
that a long swing iv th’ pick made me as good as another
man…, an’ befure I was here a month, I felt enough like a
native born American to burn a witch.103
If Mark Twain was ready to give up on humor’s capacity to blow “humbug…to atoms at a
blast,” Dunne was just getting started.
Furthermore, Mr. Dooley’s “voice” brought the consciousness of a more modern
mass culture to political humor. To date, the American everyman Jack Downing, Artemus
Ward, and Mark Twain may have sounded rural and deceptively unsophisticated, but they
were distinctly white and Anglo-Saxon, or perhaps Scotch-Irish. Dooley’s Irish-American
dialect augmented and complemented the generic American vernacular, updating it to more
accurately reflect contemporary society. Later when Will Rogers—part American cowboy
and part American Cherokee—began cracking political jokes in the 1910s, and when
African-American Dick Gregory did the same beginning in 1960, some fondly recalled the
103 Martin Dooley quoted in DeMuth, Small Town Chicago, 30-1.
With Mr. Dooley’s growing popularity during the mid 1890s, and especially after his
work was syndicated nationally in 1900, Dunne began to more regularly take on a wider
range of topics and abuses. Increasingly, he invited his millions of everyday readers to join
with him in poking satiric fun at everything from the political comedy of errors being played
out in Chicago to national affairs that often appeared nothing short of farcical, such as the
clamor over the free coinage of silver or the nation’s clumsy and inexorable march toward
imperialism. These “dissertations,” as the wit/philosopher’s monologues came to be known,
as well as the nationwide circulation networks that distributed them, gradually brought
Dunne, his audience, and the presidency into closer proximity as the nation’s affairs and the
doings of the president began to take on some of the same familiarity as discussions over the
next aldermen’s elections or the price of beer. It was even possible, according to Mr.
Dooley, that the president himself might stop by for a cold one, as when William McKinley
visited Chicago to make a speech:
Th’ Presidint is as welcome [here] as anny rayspictable marrid
man. I will give him a chat an’ a dhrink f’r fifteen cints;…I’ll
give…two f’r twinty-five cints, which is th’ standard iv value
among civilized nations th’ wurruld over. Prisidint iv th’
United States, says ye? Well, I’m prisident iv this liquor store,
fr’m th’ pitcher iv th’ Chicago fire above th’ wash-stand in th’
back room to th’ dure-step….There’s Prisidint Mack at th’
Audjiotoroom, an’ here’s Prisident Dooley,…an’ th’ len’th iv
th’ sthreet between thim. Says he, ‘Come over to th’ hotel an’
see me.’ Says I, ‘If ye find ye’ersilf thrun fr’m a ca-ar in me
neighborhood, dhrop in.’ An’ there ye ar-re.104
The scene is reminiscent of Jack Downing shaking hands in place of an exhausted
Andrew Jackson or Artemus Ward’s fanciful “interview” with a harried Abraham Lincoln,
but now those images were updated for a much-expanded, more diverse, urban, workingclass America. Although McKinley presumably never arrived for his drink and chat, Mr.
Dooley made it apparent that he could have at any time, and he would have been received as
convivially as any other customer, provided the president had his “fifteen cints” and was not
too out of sorts after being “thrun fr’m a ca-ar.” Dooley, and vicariously his everyman
audience, proclaimed their own personal sovereignty by humorously impeaching the
104 Finley Peter Dunne, Mr. Dooley in Peace and in War (Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1899), 81-2.
In 1900, this familiarity extended to Mr. Dooley deciding to review New York
governor Theodore Roosevelt’s popular new book, The Rough Riders. In it Roosevelt gave a
dashing account of the personalities and exploits surrounding his regiment’s assault up Kettle
Hill in the battle for San Juan Heights, Cuba during the Spanish-American War. The
bartender acidly praised Roosevelt (who, given his own family’s immigrant Dutch heritage,
Mr. Dooley referred to as “Tiddy Rosenfelt”) for his “Account iv th’ Desthruction iv Spanish
Power in th’ Ant Hills” and for his heroic tour-de-force that, by Dooley’s reading, TR
apparently waged solo:
I haven’t time f’r to tell ye th’ wurruk Tiddy did in ar-rmin’ an’
equippin’ himsilf, how he fed himsilf, how he steadied himsilf
in battle an’ encouraged himsilf with a few well-chosen
wurruds whin th’ sky was darkest. Ye’ll have to take a squint
into th’ book ye’ersilf to larn thim things….But if I was him
I’d call th’ book ‘Alone in Cubia.’105
Dunne’s satiric poke at how bravely and conscientiously TR had taken up what
British author Rudyard Kipling called “the white man’s burden” did not go unnoticed.
Roosevelt wrote Dunne, saying “I regret to state that my family and intimate friends are
delighted with your review of my book.”106 After Roosevelt’s unexpected rise to the
presidency following McKinley’s assassination in September 1901, Dunne—and Mr.
Dooley—continued to find humor in the president’s larger-than-life presence, whether
regarding his views on trusts, labor, American imperialism, or his perspective on “the
strenuous life” in general. In 1907, he wrote Roosevelt to say that he counted TR his “most
valuable asset,” accounting for seventy-five percent of his inspiration.107
Roosevelt’s relationship with Dunne also grew; the president had every reason to
curry favor with the humorist and his comic bartender, although he genuinely admired Dunne
as well. After all, Mr. Dooley’s “dissertations” appeared in more than one hundred
newspapers as well as magazines including Harper’s Weekly, Collier’s and the American
108 A popular song, the “Mr. Dooley March,” was released in 1901.109 When Mr.
105 Finley Peter Dunne, Elmer Ellis, and Franklin P. Adams, Mr. Dooley at His Best (New York: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1938), 99-103.
106 Ibid. 107 Dunne quoted in Gibson, Theodore Roosevelt among the Humorists, 43. 108 Charles Fanning, Finley Peter Dunne & Mr. Dooley: The Chicago Years (Lexington: University Press of
Kentucky, 1978), 243.
Dooley congratulated TR for his “Anglo-Saxon triumph” at the polls in 1904, the president
understood the new potency that humor—well-delivered and now more widely distributed—
had on the country, thanks to Dunne as well as Mark Twain. He wrote back in mock protest
and admiration, calling Dunne a "laughing philosopher (because you are not only one who
laughs, but also a genuine philosopher and because your philosophy has a real effect upon
this country)."110 Even though Dunne never hesitated to criticize TR’s policies, the personal
acquaintance between the two men gradually blossomed, based in part on a mutual
understanding of each other's power. The president invited Dunne to the White House often,
including the day after Dunne’s wedding in 1902 for dinner and a reception in the couple’s
honor.111 Dunne said of Roosevelt after TR's death in 1919: “He valued humor on a par with
the other qualities which mark the civilized man: intelligence, charity and courage. He even
pretended to take as much interest in my work as I took in his.”112 Although the long and
deep extent of their relationship makes it plain that there was real friendship between them,
Roosevelt’s political motivations for the amity (and Dunne’s awareness of this, as his
reflection on TR indicates) cannot be ignored.
President Roosevelt’s attraction to the comedian Dunne was part of a larger strategy
that TR pursued to communicate his policies and his personality to the American public. As
the defining occupant of the “bully pulpit,” Roosevelt capitalized on both the widening
power of the presidency brought on by war and the increasing public exposure of the office
brought on by mushrooming growth of newspaper and magazine readership. Newspaper
circulation totaled more than 15 million copies per day in 1900, and the combined per-issue
circulation of monthly periodicals alone soared from 18 million to 64 million in the years
between 1890 and 1905.113 Roosevelt, whose exploits as a cowboy, hunter, civil servant,
author, governor, and war hero Americans had already been following for years, saw the
clear benefit in projecting his formidable persona center stage. While William McKinley’s
administration—in particular the president’s secretary George Cortelyou—was the first to
make accommodation for an enlarged presidential press corps, including an expanded work
109 Eckley, Finley Peter Dunne, 29. 110 Theodore Roosevelt quoted in Dudden, ed., The Assault of Laughter, 285. 111 Gibson, Theodore Roosevelt among the Humorists, 47. 112 Dunne quoted in Philip Dunne, ed., Mr. Dooley Remembers: The Informal Memoirs of Finley Peter Dunne
(Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963), 209.
113 Stephen Ponder, Managing the Press: Origins of the Media Presidency, 1897-1933 (New York: Palgrave,
area inside the Executive Mansion and regular press briefings (although McKinley did not
attend these himself), Roosevelt first personalized the modern presidency, imbuing the office
with a star power that extended even to the president’s home, which he now rechristened,
glamorously enough, the White House.114 Reporters who were in the president’s good graces
might even find themselves admitted to an unprecedented brand of presidential performance
by being allowed to take part in TR’s occasional “shaving hour” press conferences, which
journalist Louis Brownlow described as “more fun than a circus.”115 Often the president—
freshly lathered and with the razor inches from his neck—would burst out of the chair in
response to a question, much to the delighted shock and admiration of the newsmen. With a
wink to the barber and always in control of his choreography, Roosevelt would re-take his
chair only to hop up again a second later.116 Although it would take other presidents at later
times to tap the press conference and its unwitting audience to its fullest comedic potential,
Theodore Roosevelt initiated the presidential showmanship that gave them their cue.
The auditioning of the president as comedian also continued thanks to the press itself,
with the advent of the Gridiron Club. Founded in 1885 as a private social and dining club by
forty of Washington’s most powerful political correspondents, the Gridiron sought, in the
words of its own 1915 historical account, to offer comradeship and diversion and, at the same
time, to hold up “the mirror to those who sit in the seats of the mighty and [show] them in the
reflex, with a touch of humor and satire, that even in the national and international
complications which surround them there is a lighter side to the picture.”117 The dinners
started modestly, but they occurred more frequently and attracted crowds approaching three
hundred by Woodrow Wilson’s administration during the mid 1910s. While the membership
was extremely exclusive, guests were freely invited to attend the rollicking affairs, to eat,
drink, to be roasted—hence the “gridiron”—and, finally, to defend themselves in remarks of
their own. Presidents were on the guest list at the outset, and every one has attended save
Grover Cleveland, who was in office when the Club was formed and who firmly declined
each time he was invited, privately confiding to one reporter “that he ‘would not fit in,’ and
was…of the opinion that Presidential dignity would be greatly ruffled by submitting to the
114 Lewis L. Gould, The Modern American Presidency (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003), 10-1. 115 Louis Brownlow quoted in Ponder, Managing the Press, 23. 116 Ibid., 24. 117 Arthur Wallace Dunn, Gridiron Nights: Humorous and Satirical Views of Politics and Statesmen as
Presented by the Famous Dining Club (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1915), 4.
‘fun you boys would have with me.’”118 Perhaps Cleveland’s decision was also influenced
by the sensational and largely unflattering coverage his personal life had attracted, including
reports about his illegitimate son and his marriage in 1886 to his 21-year-old ward. His
refusals might also be traced to the fact that, as a Democrat, he was in more hostile territory
in a press establishment that was dominated by Republicans.
Others did attend, however, often grudgingly but increasingly aware of the necessity
of occasionally nurturing good relations with the press. Benjamin Harrison, who was no
fonder of newsmen than Cleveland, waited until three years into his term before taking part,
but when he did, the event became a liminal moment between conventional perception of the
presidency and the glimpse of a new perspective made visible through humor. Confronting
the unprecedented situation, Gridiron president H. B. F. MacFarland introduced Harrison
formally with an implied warning to his fellow members, who were equally nervous and
uncertain, that the usual antics be dispensed with in deference to the president. Harrison,
who had addressed a gathering of patent officials earlier in the week, surprised the gathering
by joking, “This is the second time that I have been called upon this week to open a congress
of American inventors.”119 The presidential ice-breaker worked. The few subsequent jokes
that followed served not only to endear Harrison to those in attendance, but also to model the
expectations for future audiences and presidents alike at Gridiron dinners, all of whom tacitly
agreed to join in the lighthearted fun of the occasion. It is significant that while the comedy
flowed freely at Gridiron affairs, presidential inhibitions were not in real danger. The dinners
operated under two standing rules: “ladies are always present,” which meant that vulgarity or
other unseemly behavior was prohibited (in fact, the expression was tongue-in-cheek; women
were not admitted as members of the Gridiron Club until 1974); and “reporters are never
present.”120 This second tenet was critical, for it signaled that, while many irregularities may
hold sway at Gridiron dinners—presidents cracking jokes among them—none of the goingson was ever to appear in print or otherwise before the public. Although some details
invariably leaked out in this, like any, Washington function, what happened at the Gridiron
was to stay at the Gridiron. Still, after the 1880s, the Gridiron Club provided a good crowd
118 Ibid., 32. 119 Ibid., 19. 120 Ibid., 7.
and new venue for presidents to occasionally try out the material and hone the timing they
would come to rely on more publicly in the coming decades.
These improvised interactions between presidents and crowds at the Gridiron Club,
between Finley Peter Dunne and Theodore Roosevelt, or between Mark Twain and the world
at large are illustrative of the diverse ways that Americans began to laugh with, about, and
occasionally at their chief executive. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth,
developments in the United States—gilded prosperity, unalloyed poverty, and devastating
war—made political humor more prevalent, more caustic, and, for many, more truthful. A
larger and more diverse American audience began to encounter this humor more directly,
more comfortably, and more often, and to catch longer glimpses of celebrity comedians and
White House performers. Such meetings were still almost exclusively in print, but thanks to
the persistent influence of Mark Twain, the word pictures of Martin Dooley, and the
effervescent antics of Theodore Roosevelt—the first modern celebrity president—the stage
was set for other more spontaneous performances. It would take the peculiar and momentous
exigencies of the twentieth century—and new stars—to bring political humor, the American
audience, and the presidency fully into the limelight.
A Presidential Crinoline
Will Rogers was unique. At first the arrival in 1904 of the funny, disarming, and oddly
enchanting cowboy, whose show business debut coincided with the cresting popularity of
vaudeville, did not augur any profound change in the state of the nation’s humor or the
relationship between the American people and their president. During the next three
decades, however, this self-described “ropin’ fool” ingeniously mastered the revolution in
mass media and the related expansion of the entertainment industry to become not only the
country's favorite comedian, but also its foremost political commentator and social critic. By
the early 1930s, when legendary Hollywood director Cecil B. De Mille described him as “the
American who least can be spared,” millions of others—from paupers to presidents,
Democrats and Republicans, progressives and isolationists—agreed.121 As such, Will Rogers
earned the nation's permission to poke open fun at the chief executive in unprecedented
ways, and he convinced much of America that performing political humor was not merely
good entertainment; it served a vital public service. Almost single-handedly, Rogers taught
his grateful countrymen and women––sobered by increasingly obvious social disparities,
world war, depression, and what another master of humor named Franklin D. Roosevelt
would later call "fear itself"––a decidedly different dance. He called a high-spirited,
participatory reel that encouraged Americans to employ humor to do the serious work of
democracy, and he challenged the presidency to keep up. Franklin Roosevelt not only did,
but by 1935 when Rogers was killed in an airplane crash, the president was calling the steps.
As Louis Rubin, Joseph Boskin, and others have pointed out, and this study has
already shown, humor feeds off of incongruity and contradiction, using them to wrest power
from laughter where there might otherwise be nothing but resignation or despair. Similarly,
comedians most often come from the ranks of those most affected by these discrepancies that
define the Great American Joke, be they immigrants, minorities, or others whose social,
economic, or personal origins relegate them to the margins of mainstream America. Will
Rogers’ life was thoroughly intertwined with such incongruity; his fame and influence sprang
121 Unspecified quotation by De Mille on display at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum (hereafter cited as
WRMM), Claremore, Okla.
from the same cultural and geographical borderlands that produced Artemus Ward, Mark
Twain, and Mr. Dooley, although Rogers embodied this dissonance and harnessed it for
humorous purposes more completely than anyone before or since. He was born in 1879 in
the Cooweescoowee district of the Cherokee Nation, which had been exiled west of the
Mississippi River during the 1830s following the Indian Removal Act. Inspired to create
their own constitution by the founding ideals of presidents George Washington and Thomas
Jefferson, then sold out by the presidential betrayals of Andrew Jackson, the Cherokee
teetered on the threshold of accommodation and rebellion in a region that morphed during
Will’s youth from the Indian Territory to the Oklahoma Territory and finally to the State of
Oklahoma in 1907. During the Civil War, the region sat in the pleats between North and
South. Many Cherokee were slaveholders and most—including Will’s father—fought for the
Confederacy, which offered more freedom and better prospects than the federal government.
Will was the youngest of eight children and the only surviving son of black-haired,
broad-faced Mary Rogers, who died in 1890, and fair-haired, blue-eyed Clem, both of whom
were products of mixed-blood marriages, which made Will—like them—slightly more than
one-quarter Cherokee. Clem was almost frighteningly industrious. Forced to constantly
reinvent himself in the face of changing times, he conquered every challenge with a keen
sense of innovative pragmatism. As a rancher, he controlled a cattle range of some sixty
thousand acres within the Cherokee framework of communal land ownership, but with the
arrival of the Missouri Pacific Railroad in the 1870s and the formation of the Dawes
Commission to consider the re-allotment of land, his holdings shrank considerably and he
diversified into wheat farming, banking, and other endeavors, managing to maintain his
wealth in the process. He energetically embraced political life as well, never losing an
election, and served as a district judge for eight years, then in the Cherokee senate. In 1896,
he was chosen as one of the Cherokee delegates to meet with the Dawes Commission to
represent tribal interests and, in 1907, just four years before his death, he was elected as a
delegate to the constitutional convention for the new state of Oklahoma.122 Will’s home
county would eventually carry the Rogers name, not because of the humorist son but in honor
of the farmer/politician/philanthropist father.
122 There are several good biographies of Will Rogers. I am especially indebted to the comprehensive profile
found in Ben Yagoda, Will Rogers: A Biography (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993).
Clem’s personality and many commitments allowed plenty of money and no small
measure of affection for young Will, but little time and, often, little patience. The young boy
did not do well in school, was endlessly good-natured but often reckless, and so boisterously
talkative that to his lifelong friend Jim Hopkins it seemed as though he had been vaccinated
with a gramophone needle.123 Will lived away from home to attend school, first at the local
schoolhouse twelve miles distant and eventually at a military academy in Missouri. He
appreciated his father’s accomplishments and passionately shared his willingness to take on
new challenges, but he did not share Clem’s work ethic. He preferred horses and roping to
books or the prospect of managing a ranch. In 1898, not long past his eighteenth birthday, he
left school and headed back to Oklahoma, past his home, to work as a ranch hand on the
other side of the state. Motherless before he turned eleven, the restless son of a disciplined
and accomplished father, a student at six schools but the graduate of none, and the citizen of
a disappearing nation within a nation, Will Rogers was endowed with the same paradoxical
combination of mestizo blood, accommodation and rebelliousness, and reverence and
mischief that characterized his people, his parents, his immediate surroundings, and for that
matter, the United States of America.
Although Rogers ultimately owed his enormous popularity to his humor and his
sophisticated yet homespun philosophy, his entrée to celebrity was not in his ability to spin
words, but lassos. Certainly the rope was an economic lifeline for anyone working around
livestock, but Rogers became especially enamored with trick roping after seeing the famous
Mexican vaquero Vincente Oropeza throw intricate loops at the World’s Columbian
Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The lariat became Rogers’s constant companion thereafter
(and, to his teachers, a constant distraction), and his skills served him well during his brief
career as cowboy after he struck out on his own. Following his brief stint as a hired hand, he
returned home and entered a steer-roping contest and won first prize. In 1899, he traveled to
the St. Louis Fair for another competition, and although he did not do well, he later recalled
that the performance “gave me a touch of ‘Show business’ in a way, so that meant I was
ruined for life as far as actual employment was concerned.”124 Rogers never seriously
entertained the life of an Oklahoma rancher after that.
123 Jim Hopkins quoted in Ibid., 38. 124 Will Rogers, James Smallwood, and Steven K. Gragert, Will Rogers' Weekly Articles, 6 vols. (Stillwater,
Okla.: Oklahoma State University Press, 1980), 5:76.
In fact, these effacing comments concerning the connection between show business
and “actual employment” are telling, and they mask both the considerable importance that
the entertainment industry had on American life and the cultural influence it was beginning
to wield at the turn of the twentieth century. As noted in the previous chapter, stage
productions proliferated along with recreation of all types during the second half of the 1800s
thanks to the explosion of immigration and increased urbanization. By the end of the
century, there were more than five thousand theaters in operation nationwide, offering
everything from cheap amusements to lavish spectacle, from opera to drama to vaudeville.125
Broadway alone now housed more than twenty theaters and, by the first decade of the
twentieth century, New York City boasted a combined seating capacity of nearly two million
within its playhouses and theaters. Other cities saw proportionately the same explosive
growth.126 Performance was becoming serious business, and not just economically, but
culturally. It afforded growing legions of show business professionals their jobs, but it was
also becoming an increasingly essential diversion for millions of Americans from theirs. As
leisure, performance offered audiences what anthropologist Victor Turner has called rich
liminoid possibilities in an industrial society defined by stark divisions of labor and wide
discrepancies in power relationships. All manner of workers, regardless of class or gender,
considered leisure a critical priority, regardless of their income. Families at the turn of the
century could access vaudeville, the era’s most popular form of live entertainment, thanks to
“ten-twenty-thirty” shows, so named for the innovative price structure that gained one
admittance for as much as thirty cents but as little as a dime, while young, single workingclass women developed a voracious appetite for an enormous variety of extracurricular
activities.127 Recreation surveys revealed that women and children made up 48 percent of the
vaudeville audience in San Francisco in 1912, 45 percent in Milwaukee in 1914, and onethird of the audience in New York City.128 The theatrical limen between these diverse
audiences and performers provided a critical site for freewheeling and experimental behavior
that, in turn, introduced the potential for new culture, what anthropologist Brian Sutton-
125 Stephen Langley, Theatre Management in America: Principle and Practice: Producing for the Commercial,
Stock, Resident, College, and Community Theatre, Rev. ed. (New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1980), 90. 126 David Nasaw, Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements (New York: BasicBooks, 1993), 3. 127 Ibid., 37, Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the- Century New York
(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986).
128 Nasaw, Going Out, 27.
Smith calls protoculture.129 Plays, dances, vaudeville, and all manner of shows promised
freedom from the ritualized obligations of work as well as the freedom to consider new social
configurations that might—at least temporarily—reconcile some of the incongruities present
in status quo relationships, such as the intractable divides between whites and blacks that the
rising popularity of jazz began to mitigate, or the traditional gulf between citizen and
president that Rogers confronted through humor.130 Artemus Ward, Mark Twain, and Mr.
Dooley had engaged these same possibilities, but in the smaller performative spheres of their
times. Now, more and more, leisure was becoming the indispensable complement to labor
for the working masses of American society, and consequently, labor and leisure became
symbiotic within the evolving American popular culture.
As if by stealth, Will Rogers came of age as a performer at precisely this moment.
His wholesome and self-effacing style masked the potency of his effect on audiences even as
the cultural power of performance in general was cloaked in the guise of bright light and
greasepaint. His seamless metamorphosis from working cowboy to working performer was
just as innocently surreptitious. After a period of scanty success performing in roping and
riding contests throughout the middle West, he journeyed to Argentina in 1902 in search of
ranch work but succeeded only in exhausting his (and increasing amounts of his father’s)
money. Left several months later “without enough dough to make the first payment on a
soda cracker,” he secured a job helping to tend a shipment of livestock bound for South
Africa, where, after several weeks of odd jobs, he saw an advertisement for one of the many
cultural imports from America—Texas Jack’s Wild West Show—and paid it a visit, thinking
he might help out behind the scenes.131 The interview led to Rogers demonstrating a few
rope tricks, and he was hired on the spot at twenty dollars a week.132 Dubbed the “Cherokee
Kid,” he performed across South Africa for more than a year before returning to the United
States in the spring of 1904. His reputation and career were slowly beginning to gain
momentum. Adjusting to the contingencies of the age, Will Rogers was thriving as a cowboy
the only way it was now profitable, by playing one on stage.
129 Marvin A. Carlson, Performance: A Critical Introduction, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2004), 19, Turner,
From Ritual to Theatre, 33. 130 Turner, From Ritual to Theatre, 37. 131 Will Rogers and Donald Day, The Autobiography of Will Rogers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 19. 132 Yagoda, Will Rogers, 58.
Rogers was an immediate hit in South Africa. He earned two encores in his first
performance before an audience that had never seen such prowess with a rope.133 Crowds
were especially dazzled by his grand finale. Called the “Crinoline,” it was a mesmerizing
combination of artistry and audacity, and involved Rogers on a horse twirling a horizontal
loop around himself, then, as the circle grew in size, around the horse, and finally, with the
loop now ninety to one hundred feet in circumference, around a good portion of the
delighted—if somewhat anxious—audience.134 It was a difficult and strenuous trick, but
Rogers performed it better than anyone else and seemingly without effort, and it became a
trademark of his act when he began to perform for American crowds. The rope, and
especially the Crinoline, also became metaphors for Rogers’ influence over people and
presidents. He used it to endear himself to the public and to earn credibility. Years later, by
the time he replaced his lariat with jokes, it was easy—both in Rogers’ mind and those of his
fans—to transition from roping horses to roping presidents.
Later in 1904, Rogers made his vaudeville debut in Chicago as one of several "dumb
acts," performers whose novel skills required no verbal interaction with the audience. Eager
to make a name for himself, he enhanced his routine by bringing a horse on stage and roping
the cooperative animal with lassos of increasing size and complexity. Rogers named the
pony Teddy, after President Theodore Roosevelt.135 Like his namesake, Teddy was
intelligent, appreciated applause, and was known to "whinny his disapproval" when kept
waiting.136 Rogers described him as "a lively critter [that] can throw up a little dust when he
gets started."137 It is unclear whether Teddy's close resemblance to the toothy Roosevelt
influenced Rogers' choice of a name. Nevertheless, Will Rogers was roping and reining in
presidents before he ever said a word on stage. What is more, the audience was delighted
and even the victim did not seem to mind.
After touring several states, Rogers traveled east to New York City in search of
greater fame and fortune in vaudeville’s capital on a personal migration that was reminiscent
of those of Charles Farrar Browne and Samuel Clemens a half-century before. On the way to
133 Ibid., 59. 134 Betty Rogers, Will Rogers: His Wife's Story (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979), 91-2. 135 Ibid., 86, 90-1. 136 Unidentified newspaper clipping quoted in Arthur Frank Wertheim and Barbara Bair, eds., The Papers of
Will Rogers: From Vaudeville to Broadway, September 1908-August 1915, vol. 3 (Norman, Okla.: University of
Oklahoma Press, 2001), 91.
137 Ibid., 116.
perform at New York’s Madison Square Garden as part of a Wild West show, he nearly
roped, not four-legged Teddy, but the President himself. According to the Washington
Times, during a layover in Washington, D.C., Rogers and a fellow cowboy "went to the
White House, and did some tricks for the entertainment of the children of the President."138
Roosevelt was out of town, but the occasion marked the first of Rogers' many invitations to
the White House during the next 30 years.
Rogers’ first appearance on a New York vaudeville stage was in June 1905, and
accompanied by fellow cowboy Jim Minnick, who rode Teddy. Soon afterward, his act
ceased to be "dumb," as he began to apologize for the occasional missed rope throw and
explain his more difficult tricks. Such off-the-cuff remarks––delivered through his
trademark wad of Beechnut chewing gum and distinctive Oklahoma twang––immediately
produced laughs, surprising no one but Rogers himself. Like the classroom clown
encouraged by his first taste of approval, his comedy career was launched. For the next
decade, he delighted huge audiences across the country, touring vaudeville’s Keith-Albee,
Orpheum, and Poli circuits. In the process, the American public accepted him—and his
cowboy persona infused with frontier simplicity, candor, and a unique blend of Western
naiveté and Eastern show-business savvy—as utterly American. Will Rogers the showman
was becoming not only well-liked, but well-trusted.
Florenz Ziegfeld was not among his growing number of fans. The Oklahoma
cowboy's antics and his "aw shucks" humor were lost on the humorless Broadway
impresario. Still, it was impossible to deny Rogers' growing popularity among New York
audiences and critics, or his sensational reception nationally. In 1915, after Rogers had sold
out the Palace Theater and virtually every other major vaudeville house, Ziegfeld was
convinced to hire the cowboy comic (by now working without Teddy), first as part of the
Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic, an innovative cabaret performed on the roof of the New
Amsterdam Theater after the nightly curtain of the legendary Follies, then a year later as part
of the main attraction downstairs.
With the show’s well-heeled clientele and Ziegfeld’s sophisticated publicity machine,
Rogers' initial four-year association with Ziegfeld further crystallized his fame and offered
the perfect forum, not for his twirling alone but also for his increasing use of humor. Joking
138 Washington Times quoted in Yagoda, Will Rogers, 82.
had been a transitional device between rope tricks. Gradually the rope was becoming
subordinate to the wit. His banter became more frequent and he began sparring amiably with
celebrities in the audience. In an effort to remain topical, he followed his wife Betty's
suggestion to talk about what he read in the daily papers.139 It was an epiphany. He found
the day's news and newsmakers to be vastly more comical than the more synthetic theater
gags he had been repeating night after night. He shared in a 1919 interview with American
Magazine: "So I started to reading about Congress; and believe me, I found they are funnier
three hundred and sixty-five days a year than anything I ever heard of."140 Audiences agreed.
The national coverage attested to Americans’ enthusiastic response to this unlikely star
whose "meteoric rise, in four years" had lofted him "to a place among the few real humorists
of the stage…."141
In the spring of 1916, Rogers’ rising popularity earned him an invitation to join the
all-star cast of the Friars Frolics, a production of New York's Friars Club that toured several
Eastern cities, including Baltimore. President Woodrow Wilson and his new wife Edith
made the fifty-mile drive to see the comedy show, a surprising effort given not only his
Presbyterian conservatism but the abundance of issues and crises at hand, including the
pursuit of Pancho Villa into Mexico, the debate over military preparedness during continued
tensions over German submarine aggression, and Wilson's impending bid for re-election.
Perhaps he saw the appearance as a campaign opportunity, or maybe he simply craved the
diversion, understanding as Lincoln had, that "with the fearful strain that is upon [the
president] night and day, if [he] did not laugh [he] should die…."142 Whatever the reason, it
was the first time a president of the United States had traveled so far specifically to see a
comedy performance, and Will Rogers was so nervous he nearly walked out and caught the
next train back to Oklahoma.143 He did go on, however, and with his inclusion of several
jokes at Wilson’s expense, his act marked a defining moment when humor and live
performance worked in concert to permanently alter the relationship between the American
people and the presidency.
139 Rogers and Day, The Autobiography of Will Rogers, 38. 140 George Martin, "The Wit of Will Rogers," The American Magazine, November 1919, 34. 141 Ibid. 142 Abraham Lincoln quoted in Pullen, Comic Relief, 2-3. 143 Rogers, Smallwood, and Gragert, Will Rogers' Weekly Articles, 1:194.
This was not to be the first time Will Rogers publicly kidded a president. Since 1911
his stage comments had slowly become more political as well as topical. Laughing about
politics and particularly politicians was natural for Rogers, whose Cherokee heritage imbued
him with the realization that the personal and the political were closely intertwined.144 After
all, the political affairs of the Cherokee Nation affected every life and every family directly;
for Rogers those affairs were as close as his own father and the policies that had kept his
ancestors nomads in their own land for more than a century. Furthermore, under such
circumstances, politics—and the conflicting feelings of empowerment, bitterness, cynicism,
and absurdity that it engendered—made for something of a spectator sport; it was a natural
source of entertainment. What could be more rewarding than getting involved in politics,
and hence earning the right and the wisdom to joke about it? This ethos permeated Rogers’
entire life and this easy intimacy with political power became formative to his public
persona. Politicians from alderman to president may wield enormous power relative to their
fellow citizens, but to Rogers, in the end they were just flesh and bones, skills and faults, and
perhaps they were all the more admirable because of this fallibility and their ability to
recognize it. If they lacked such recognition, Rogers was more than willing to help them
along. Presidents especially, he maintained, were “the most human of our men.”145 This was
what Revolutionary jesters, Charles Browne, and other literary humorists had intimated from
the relatively tight confines of earlier print culture and the lecture platform, but Will Rogers
began to broadcast it to mass audiences in the most personal—even neighborly—of ways.
He modeled for Americans how to negotiate the complex tension between worshipping their
leaders and vilifying them, and then how to articulate it. For his listeners (and later his
readers), Rogers’ words not only offered entertainment; they added to the day’s political
discourse. He refined his natural acumen for political humor into a studied skill during his
vaudeville years and over time, his wholly unique approach endeared him to both the nation
at large and politicians who sought to bask in and capitalize on the glow of his contagious
Perhaps it was not a coincidence that Will Rogers' first presidential joke was aimed at
kindred spirit Theodore Roosevelt in October 1911, just as Rogers retired his favorite pony
144 Yagoda, Will Rogers, 13. 145 Gulf radio broadcast, 26 November 1933, Will Rogers Radio Broadcasts, 1933-1935, Will Rogers Memorial,
Claremore, Okla. (hereafter cited as WRM), 67.
and roping target Teddy and began working alone. A New York critic thought the occasion
significant enough to record and Rogers agreed, saving the clipping in his scrapbook:
It was at Hammerstein's [Theatre] where Will Rogers first
appeared doing a "single." From that day the managers have
never again desired that he should surround himself with a
company of men and horses. Rogers and his rope supply
enough fun for both the managers and the public…. He has
some witty talk, too.
"You remember," he asked, "when Teddy Roosevelt came back
from a long tour of the West? Or can't you remember that?
You must remember Roosevelt, don't you? Well, Teddy was a
pretty good fellow, when he had it. I wonder what has become
After the laugh had subsided he continued:
"You know, they do say that sometimes they come back," and
then after this laugh has subsided: "But not often."146
Rogers clearly admired Roosevelt. He had tried to enlist in his Rough Riders
regiment as a young man (he was rejected as too young) and first met Roosevelt in 1900
along with other cowboys at a roping contest where the heroes of San Juan Hill were holding
a reunion.147 Both men were products of the Western iconography of the day and owed
much of their popularity with the American people to its allure, although Rogers ribbed the
patrician Roosevelt for not being "a real, sure-enough cowboy, 'cause he had plenty of money
all the time, and a sure-enough cowboy never has any money."148 Their mutual admiration
continued to the last years of Roosevelt’s life. TR wrote to Rogers while in seclusion
following the World War I death of his youngest Quentin in 1918, and thanked Rogers for
kind words about him from the stage, and Rogers was in attendance by personal invitation for
Roosevelt’s final major speech at Carnegie Hall that October.149 Years later Rogers wrote
that Roosevelt should have been elected president at age 15 since "he could have run [the
office] as good at that age as most men could at 50."150
146 Unidentified clipping quoted in Wertheim and Bair, eds., The Papers of Will Rogers: From Vaudeville to
Broadway, 257-8. 147 Rogers and Day, The Autobiography of Will Rogers, 12, Yagoda, Will Rogers, 30. 148 Wertheim and Bair, eds., The Papers of Will Rogers: From Vaudeville to Broadway, 59. 149 Theodore Roosevelt to Will Rogers, 4 August 1918, Will Rogers Papers, Will Rogers Memorial, Claremore,
Okla. (hereafter cited as WRP-WRM), doc. 1975.21.0150.
150 Rogers, Smallwood, and Gragert, Will Rogers' Weekly Articles, 1:150.
The response to Rogers’ onstage jibe at Roosevelt in 1911—in reference to
Roosevelt’s long political absence after leaving office and to his re-emergence in advance of
the 1912 presidential campaign—caught on. However tame by modern measure, it was
popular enough that Rogers repeated the joke often and three years later it was still part of his
standard act.151 After all, a mild jest at a president years out of office seemed comfortably
within propriety, for the comic as well as his audience.
Now, in the spring of 1916, with President Wilson very much in office and very
much in attendance at the Friars Frolics, things were different. Rogers suffered enormous
stage fright the night of the performance, teetering between confidence and uncertainty that
kidding the president was acceptable, especially with such tension at home and abroad.
Later, he laughingly recalled that the stage manager knocked on his dressing room door,
telling him “You die in 5 more minutes for kidding your country.”152 Nevertheless, while all
others on the program performed their standard routines, Rogers "gave a great deal of time
and thought to an act for [Wilson], most of which would never be used again, and had never
been used before."153 The decision was daring and momentous in the history of American
political standup comedy. By teasing the president to his face and in the open public sphere,
Rogers was simultaneously heeding his instincts as a political humorist and treading––warily
and for the first time––on liminal ground. He had no idea whether his audience would dance
along. He recounted the incident years later in a column memorializing Wilson:
How was I to know but what the audience would rise up in
mass and resent it. I had never heard, and I don't think any one
else had ever heard of a president being joked personally in a
public theatre about the policies of his administration….
My first remark…was, "I am kinder nervous here tonight."
Now that is not an especially bright remark, and I don't hope to
go down in history on the strength of it, but it was so apparent
to the audience that I was speaking the truth that they laughed
heartily at it. After all, we all love honesty….
I said, "I see where they have captured [Pancho] Villa. Yes,
they got him in the morning editions and then the afternoon
ones let him get away." Now everybody in the house before
they would laugh looked at the president, to see how he was
151 Wertheim and Bair, eds., The Papers of Will Rogers: From Vaudeville to Broadway, 355. 152 Rogers, Smallwood, and Gragert, Will Rogers' Weekly Articles, 1:194. 153 Ibid., 1:193.
going to take it. Well, he started laughing and they all
Rogers fired several more shots concerning the controversy over military preparedness:
"There is some talk of getting a machine gun if we can borrow one. The one we have now
they are using to train our army with in Plattsburg [New York], if we go to war we will just
about have to go to the trouble of getting another gun."155
According to Rogers and the enthusiastic media coverage, Woodrow Wilson enjoyed
it all, leading the audience in enthusiastic laughter. Evidently it was one of Rogers' last and
most volatile jokes concerning the flurry of diplomatic communication with Germany that
the President relished most, given Wilson's personal investment in foreign affairs: "President
Wilson is getting along fine now to what he was a few months ago. Do you realize, people,
that at one time in our negotiations with Germany that he was 5 notes behind."156 Wilson
later repeated this line and quoted Rogers often among friends, in speeches, even at a
meeting of his cabinet. Rogers' fellow cast member George M. Cohan thanked Wilson for
making the long journey from Washington and later recalled the President's response: "I'd
travel ten times that distance to listen to as wise a man as Will Rogers."157 Rogers performed
for Wilson four more times at regularly scheduled performances of the Follies, and he
allowed that insofar as “we of the stage know that our audiences are our best friends,…he
was the greatest audience of any public man we ever had.”158 As of February 1924 when he
wrote his reminiscence of the former president, who had died the week before, Rogers called
the Baltimore performance for Woodrow Wilson "the proudest and most successful night I
ever had on the stage."159 For his part, Wilson, according to his secretary, Joseph P.
Tumulty, deeply admired Rogers the comedian and the man.160
Press coverage of the show—specifically concerning Wilson’s response to Rogers’
material—was extensive and positive.161 However, the greatest testimony to his popularity
154 Ibid., 1:194-5. 155 Ibid., 1:195. 156 Ibid., 1:196. 157 George M. Cohan quoted in Yagoda, Will Rogers, 146. 158 Rogers, Smallwood, and Gragert, Will Rogers' Weekly Articles, 1:193. 159 Rogers, Will Rogers, 164. 160 Joseph Tumulty to Rogers, 14 March 1924, WRP-WRM, #18RF. 161 For examples see Will Rogers and Arthur Frank Wertheim, Will Rogers at the Ziegfeld Follies, 1st ed.
(Norman [Okla.]: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 145-6.
and Americans’ identification with his comments on American life—presidential and
otherwise—was the public’s growing desire to hear from Rogers directly. In 1922, the
McNaught Newspaper Syndicate commissioned him to write a weekly column, and four
years later the New York Times began to run daily 150-word missives dispatched from
wherever he happened to be. Eventually these “daily telegrams” were likewise syndicated
and more than six hundred newspapers ran the two columns, which he continued to type out
daily until his death and which earned him $2,500 per week by 1930.162 It was estimated that
these columns were read by forty million Americans daily.163 A lucrative contract with the
Saturday Evening Post soon followed the McNaught deals. In 1927, a trade brochure jointly
produced by the Post and film production company Pathe Exchange, Inc. (which had recently
been purchased by an up-and-coming motion picture magnate and Wall Street millionaire
named Joseph P. Kennedy) boasted that Rogers was the most publicized man in America.164
Rogers made his first silent film, Laughing Bill Hyde, in 1918 and he signed long-term
contracts with Goldwyn Pictures Corporation and Fox Film Corporation (later 20th Century
Fox), ultimately becoming known as the “Mark Twain of the Screen” and the top male boxoffice attraction of the later 1920s and early 1930s.165 Radio stardom also followed. Will
Rogers and his funny ruminations on all subjects—including the American presidency—were
in huge demand and the blossoming mass media of the day rushed to fill it.
The Presbyterian Wilson’s somewhat surprising enthusiasm for the showman Rogers
in 1916 can be traced in part to his administration’s gradual understanding and exploitation
of a more performative presidency given the exigencies of the modern media age. More than
any of his predecessors, Wilson could appreciate both Rogers’ command of an audience and
the impact that such theatricality could have on modern public opinion. In March 1913,
under advisor Joe Tumulty’s direction, the Wilson administration had taken Theodore
Roosevelt’s informal shaving sessions with reporters present once step further and initiated
regular press conferences with White House reporters as a way of bringing the president and
his policies closer to readers. The following month he broke a century-old precedent and
162 Will Rogers, James Smallwood, and Steven K. Gragert, Will Rogers' Daily Telegrams, 4 vols. (Stillwater,
Okla.: Oklahoma State University Press, 1978), 1:xiii.
163 John Barry, "Claremore Cowboy: Will Rogers, Journalist," Boston Globe, 22 August 1935. 164 “The Most Publicized Man in America,” miscellaneous file, box 14, WRM. 165 Lary May, The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2002), 17.
appeared in person before Congress to deliver a message on tariff reform, commencing the
tradition of presidents performing their State of the Union addresses live before hundreds,
then millions, of people. In 1916, desiring to exploit the sensational popularity of moving
pictures, the Democratic National Committee produced the silent film, The President and His
Cabinet in Action, which gave hundreds of thousands of Americans their first-ever look at an
animated president walking, talking, and laughing. Although the press conferences were
discontinued in 1915—allegedly for national security reasons—and Wilson can hardly be
considered a media hound, his administration heralded a new understanding of the
increasingly public and theatrical requirements of the office.166 However intermittently, the
president and the comedian were on parallel trajectories, at least where the accessibility
afforded by mass media was concerned.
Yet Wilson's favorable response to comedy in general, and to Rogers' personal
teasing in particular, was not typical of presidential reaction in the first three decades of the
twentieth century. In many ways, William Howard Taft’s administration resembled those of
the later nineteenth century more closely than those of the early twentieth. He lacked the
political astuteness of both Roosevelt and Wilson, and often considered the increasing public
demands on his presidency as intrusive.167 Rogers was not yet a political humorist during
these early years of his vaudeville career, and consequently there was no political standup in
mainstream popular culture. Even in later years, however, the dearth of Rogers’ references
to Taft seems to indicate that the comedian thought the former president, while affable, was
just as inconsequential as Rogers was unknown to Taft. In the same way, the lackluster
Warren G. Harding's brand of "normalcy" was not attuned to the Rogersian wit. In early
1922, when Rogers wrote and performed in a skit for the Ziegfeld Frolic mildly lampooning
the Washington Naval Conference and Harding's penchant for golf, the President asked him,
through an emissary, to desist from making such comments, then continued to snub Rogers
even when the comedian quickly acquiesced.168 Rogers retaliated a few days later, claiming
in a newspaper article that Harding—carrying a bundle of treaties wrapped in paper as he
166 Gould, The Modern American Presidency, 43-7. 167 Ibid., 33. 168 Rogers and Wertheim, Will Rogers at the Ziegfeld Follies, 146, Yagoda, Will Rogers, 189-90.
prepared to address the Senate—looked as much like a bootlegger as a president.169 Back on
stage that evening and by now emboldened by his success with Wilson years before and no
longer as squeamish about assailing presidents in front of a live audience, Rogers made a
prescient reference to Harding's administration in connection with a recent fire at the
Treasury Department: "The fire started on the roof and burned down and down until it got to
the place where the money ought to be and there it stopped. The Harding administration had
beat the fire to it. A fire in the Treasury building is nothing to get excited about during a
Republican administration."170 During that night’s curtain call, Rogers felt confident enough
in his relationship with his audience to indirectly chide Harding: “I have cracked quite a few
jokes on public men here, both Republicans and Democrats. I hope I have not given offense.
In fact, I don’t believe any big man will take offense.”171 Although Rogers and Harding
reportedly cleared up their differences and Rogers later had many kind words for the
President, who died suddenly of a heart attack eighteen months later, the scandal-plagued
Harding administration clearly had neither real awareness nor use for the wit of a
professional entertainer. It is telling, however, that by 1922—in the wake of the public tiff
with Harding—the public seemed at least as inclined to fault a president for not being able to
take a joke as to criticize a comedian for making one.
By the middle of the 1920s, Will Rogers’ mastery of the burgeoning electronic media
and his increasingly ubiquitous presence in American popular culture began to attract
presidents into his orbit rather than him into theirs. He knew both Calvin Coolidge and
Herbert Hoover comparatively well, and both presidents saw the benefit in associating
themselves with the comedian. Coolidge's soporific reputation obscured an often-impish
sense of humor that served as a foil to Rogers’ jokes and indirectly advanced the slowly
tightening relationship between mass culture and what had been, to this point—Woodrow
Wilson’s public appreciation of humor notwithstanding—the staunchly aloof institution of
the presidency. In fact, Rogers credited "Silent Cal" with "more subtle humor than almost
any public man I ever met."172 He steadfastly avoided outward displays of it, believing that
169 Unidentified clipping quoted in Steven K. Gragert and M. Jane Johansson, eds., The Papers of Will Rogers:
From the Broadway Stage to the National Stage, September 1915-July 1928, vol. 4 (Norman, Okla.: University
of Oklahoma Press, 2005), 231.
170 Yagoda, Will Rogers, 190. 171 Rogers, Will Rogers, 167-8. 172 Will Rogers, "How to Escape a Lecture," Good Housekeeping, March 1935, 25.
“it was fatal to show humor in public office; it reacted against you,” yet Rogers fondly
recalled a private moment when he stopped by the White House to invite the president to one
of his upcoming performances and happened to add that a popular quartet would also be
appearing.173 The deadpan Coolidge, without a moment’s hesitation, enthusiastically agreed
to attend, saying: “Yes, I like singing.”174 Rogers’ personal relationship with Hoover was
similarly cordial; Hoover and other members of his administration not only enjoyed several
of Rogers’ shows, but the comic felt secure enough in the president’s good graces to ask him
for executive clemency for an old school friend who had been convicted of a minor
bootlegging charge.175 It was not their personal relationships, however, but rather the roles
that Rogers, Coolidge, and Hoover played in the establishment of radio as a forum for
presidential humor that made a lasting difference in how comedians, presidents, and millions
of common Americans perceived the highest office in the land.
Characteristically, Rogers was one of the first national celebrities to be heard on the
radio. In February 1922 while on tour in Pittsburgh with the Ziegfeld Frolic (and just a week
before his exchange with Harding), he was invited into a makeshift studio at KDKA, the
nation’s first commercial station, which had debuted less than a year and a half before.
Surrounded by a few close friends and fellow cast members, Rogers presumably joked about
the show, current events, and probably the new medium itself (there were no recording
devices in place to capture his monologue) while a captivated regional audience tuned in via
headphones and crystal receivers.176 Radio was quickly transitioning from curiosity to craze,
and Rogers was fascinated, although it would take another nine years before his voice
became a weekly fixture on the air. He was never completely comfortable with the distance
that radio put between him and his live audience; it was hard to make the studio microphone
Nevertheless, given his popularity, Americans heard his voice regularly on radio
during the 1920s, whether as part of occasional solo efforts or as a guest on another program.
173 Ibid., 214. 174 Ibid. 175 Charles Curtis to Rogers, 28 April 1930, WRP-WRM, 1975.31.0501, Rogers to Herbert Hoover, ca. 5 July
1932, WRP-WRM, #45aAW.
176 Alfred Balk, The Rise of Radio, from Marconi through the Golden Age (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.,
177 Steven K. Gragert, ed., Radio Broadcasts of Will Rogers (Stillwater, Okla.: Oklahoma State University Press,
In January 1928, he was asked to take part in the first broadcast emanating from four
locations at once: New York, Chicago, New Orleans, where Al Jolson hosted, and Beverly
Hills, where Rogers spoke from his home.178 His monologue touched on predictable material
before he said, “I want to introduce a friend of mine who is here and wishes to speak to
you.”179 Tightening his lips and affecting Calvin Coolidge’s high-pitched nasal tone—that a
majority of Americans had only rarely, if ever, heard—he impersonated a president for the
first time in front of a mass audience:
I am proud to report that the country as a whole is prosperous.
I don’t mean by that that the whole country is prosperous, but,
as a whole it is prosperous. That is, it is prosperous for a
whole. A hole is not supposed to be prosperous, and we are
certainly in a hole. There is not a whole lot of doubt about that.
Everybody I come in contact with is doing well. They have to
be doing well or they don’t come in contact with me.180
The uproar was loud and immediate. McNaught Syndicate co-founder V. V. McNitt
telegrammed Rogers to report that “millions of people” thought the impersonation “was
really Coolidge talking” and strongly suggested that he “might want to explain in a daily
dispatch that it was not really Cal but you.”181 Rogers did, in his daily telegram of January
I [have] found…that some people [have] censored me severely
for leaving the impression the other night that Mr. Coolidge
was on the radio. Well, the idea that any one could imagine it
was him uttering the nonsense that I was uttering! It struck me
that it would be an insult to any one’s sense of humor to
announce that it was not him.182
Publicly, Rogers was incredulous that the mimicry had been taken seriously, but in
private he was deeply concerned. Almost two years before, Rogers had toured Europe on
assignment for the Saturday Evening Post and had sent back regular, amusing, open
dispatches to Coolidge (who had no connection whatsoever to the project). The messages—
first published in the New York Times and later collected under the title, Letters of a Self-
178 Rogers, Will Rogers, 169-70. 179 Ibid., 170. 180 “Talk by Mr. Will Rogers, Montclair High School, Montclair, New Jersey, April 16th, 1928,” WRP-WRM,
181 V. V. McNitt to Rogers, telegram, 6 January 1928, WRP-WRM, 1975.31.0501. 182 Rogers, Smallwood, and Gragert, Will Rogers' Daily Telegrams, 1:170.
Made Diplomat to His President—had been enormously popular and had brought the worlds
of presidential politics and popular humor into even closer proximity.183 The president had
even played along and, upon Rogers’ return to the United States, he jovially continued his
custom of inviting returning ambassadors to meet with him for consultation, even though this
ambassador was most certainly without portfolio. It was Rogers’ first personal invitation to
socialize at the White House and he had enjoyed his quiet dinner and overnight stay with the
Now he was horrified that the impersonation had crossed the line, destroying these
good feelings and, potentially, his tacit license to poke fun at the presidency. The apologetic
letter he sent to the White House after the broadcast echoed the same shock and uncertainty
that many of his listeners were experiencing:
My Dear Mr. and Mrs. President,
I find that due to my lack of good taste, or utter stupidity, that I
have wounded the feelings of two people who I most admire,
and should have been the last to embarrass had I purposely
started out to annoy the entire world. If it will lessen the
annoyance any to know that there was absolutely and
positively no inkling of a thing of that kind intended, why I
want you to believe me when I tell you that was the case.
Why, Mr. Coolidge you and your wife have been nicer to me
than any one in high public life in America. I was never
invited to the White House by any other President, and in
dozens of ways you have been kind to me….
If I didn’t have sincere admiration for you both…this thing
wouldn’t hurt so bad. But it does hurt me to think that I have
to resort to bad taste to make my living from men who have
befriended me. I did the little talk in a moment of jest, never
for one moment thinking the most stupid of people could ever
mistake it for anyone but me….
As the long letter continued, he moved from apology to rationalization, doubting not only
himself but also his audience:
I just misjudged the intelligence of the people listening, and I
can’t lay all the blame to them, for I can see now after due
thought that it was not the proper thing to do under any
circumstances….I realize now that radio is not the stage, where
they can see you, and I also realize that the class of people who
183 Will Rogers, Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President (Claremore, Okla.: Will Rogers Heritage
would come into a Theatre to see you are above the average of
some of the ones who would be listening over a radio. All this
I have learned to my sorrow, and if you can see it in your heart,
you and that dear wife of yours, to forgive me, I will certainly
see that it, or nothing approaching it, will ever happen again.
If there ever was a sad Comedian, I am one….
Yours most respectfully,
In this amazing private correspondence with the president of the United States,
Rogers—caught between his audience, his humor, and the object of that humor—briefly and
uncharacteristically lost both his composure and his comedic bearings. In his desperation to
find answers and make amends, he lashed out at himself, the medium, and other Americans
in class terms without recognizing that he had unwittingly brought himself—and the rest of
the nation—to the precarious brink of new and dangerous, but exciting, cultural territory.
His listeners could not be blamed. After all, they knew Rogers much better than they knew
the president or, for that matter, radio. Rogers carried cultural authority, so when the
comedian introduced the president, many had little reason to doubt him, given the close
association that Rogers had cultivated between humor and politics, and especially
considering the recent pleasant association between the “self-made diplomat” and this
president. The misunderstanding was unavoidable for reasons that Rogers could not have
known, that is, he was performing transformative humor on a transformative medium before
a profoundly transforming public.
As for the humor of impersonation, it remained on the cusp between daring comedy
and tasteless duplicity, with most Americans seemingly inclined to think it the latter,
although the president—who would seem to have been most justified in taking offense—was
decidedly (and typically) placid about it all. For his part, Coolidge responded to Rogers’
letter calmly and politely, telling him that he "found the matter of rather small consequence"
and that "your work makes it all plain that you had no intention [other than] some harmless
amusement."185 Rogers not only took great comfort from Coolidge’s response, he used it
184 Rogers to Calvin Coolidge, January 1928, file 1595, President's Personal File (PPF), Calvin Coolidge
Memorial Room, Forbes Library, Northampton, Massachusetts. For the sake of clarity, I have corrected
Rogers’ eccentric spelling and often confusing use of capitalization and punctuation only. No word usage has
185 Calvin Coolidge to Rogers, 11 January 1928, WRP-WRM, 1975.21.0147.
aggressively to validate impersonation as a legitimate tool in the political comic’s repertoire.
By the time he wrote the column of January 13 where he initially explained the confusion
(which was headlined, “HE DIDN’T OFFEND MR. COOLIDGE, ROGERS SAYS; HAS A
LETTER FROM THE PRESIDENT TO PROVE IT”), his contrition had evaporated:
I knew my man before I joked about him. It’s as I have often
said: You can always joke good naturedly [about] a big man,
but be sure he is a big man before you joke about him. What I
did over the radio on Mr. Coolidge I did an entire year on my
tour of every State last season, and I knew it didn’t offend good
Rogers continued to raise the issue in the months and years that followed. Even as he
continued to chasten some for their lack of humor, he steadfastly mediated between
Americans and their hesitation to imitate the presidency, lest such parody somehow cheapen
what was rapidly becoming the most powerful office in the world. Americans were still
undecided when the matter faded away in the glare of that fall’s presidential election (in
which Coolidge was not entered), and Rogers had to readdress the probity of impersonation
six years later with another president. The country would not reach consensus on the issue
for another forty years, but Will Rogers initiated the modern debate.
In October 1931, Rogers found himself on the radio with another presidential voice,
this time the real thing. Herbert Hoover enlisted the country’s favorite comedian and most
trusted personality to help counter the ever-increasing economic gloom and psychological
effects of the Great Depression. Hoover knew the power of radio, having overseen its
introduction and regulation as secretary of commerce, although his naturally introverted
nature and deepening sullenness as the Depression worsened did not lend itself to good
radio.187 Rogers, on the other hand, had proven his star power on the air as he had
everywhere else. After the sporadic appearances of the 1920s, he could now be heard with
much more regularity. In the spring of 1930, E.R. Squibb and Sons contracted with him (for
$77,000, nearly the same as Babe Ruth’s annual salary; he donated it to Depression relief) for
a series of twelve fifteen-minute talks profiling leading figures of the day.188 Now the
186 Rogers, Smallwood, and Gragert, Will Rogers' Daily Telegrams, 1:170. 187 For Hoover’s role in the commercialization of radio, see Susan Smulyan, Selling Radio: The
Commercialization of American Broadcasting, 1920-1934 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994). 188 Yagoda, Will Rogers, 306.
president sought to associate himself and his policies with the superstar by asking Rogers to
join him on nationwide radio to promote his initiative urging a voluntary response to the
unemployment crisis, known as the President’s Organization on Unemployment Relief
Rogers was willing to help. He believed that a frenzy of corporate and consumer
credit, along with irrational stock-market speculation during the 1920s—namely Coolidge’s
policies, not Hoover’s—had caused the most disastrous economic cataclysm in the nation's
history. In fact, Hoover had been the subject of a flattering Squibb profile the previous year,
when he had joked that it seemed everyone expected the president to personally fix their
Prosperity—millions of people never had it under nobody and
never will have it under anybody, but they all want it under Mr.
…If the weather is wrong, we blame it on Hoover. So all in
all, I believe he is doing a pretty good job, and I only claim one
distinction, and that is that I am the only person that I know of
that is not on one of his commissions.189
Nevertheless, as the economic situation deteriorated, it was increasingly difficult not to lay
blame on the White House. When Hoover tried to rally the country by invoking the spirit of
Valley Forge, Rogers could muster only backhanded tribute: "He found somebody that was
worse off than we are, but he had to go back 150 years in history to do it."190
On October 18, 1931, the comedian and the president shared the microphone,
although each spoke separately. Rogers worked in some humor toward the beginning of his
off-the-cuff remarks, kiddingly predicting that Amos and Andy were all washed up and “it
will just be Hoover and Rogers from now on,” but his overall tone was sobering:
The only problem that confronts this country today is at least
7,000,000 people are out of work. That’s our only problem.
There is no other one before us at all. It’s to see that every man
that wants to is able to work, is allowed to find a place to go to
work, and also to arrange some way of getting more equal
distribution of the wealth in the country.
189 Gragert, ed., Radio Broadcasts of Will Rogers, 14. 190 Rogers, Smallwood, and Gragert, Will Rogers' Daily Telegrams, 3:36.
He put the current crisis in perspective, contrasting it with one of the most divisive issues of
Now it’s Prohibition, we hear a lot about that. Well, that’s
nothing to compare to your neighbor’s children that are hungry.
It’s food, it ain’t drink that we are worried about today. Here a
few years ago we were so afraid that the poor people was liable
to take a drink that now we’ve fixed so that they can’t even get
something to eat.
As always, he found a trenchant way to make his point:
So here we are in a country with more wheat and more corn
and more money in the bank, more cotton, more everything in
the world…and yet we’ve got people starving. We’ll hold the
distinction of being the only nation in the history of the world
that ever went to the poor house in an automobile….
And then he concluded:
…I certainly want to thank Mr. Hoover for the privilege of
being allowed to appear on the same program with him because
I know that this subject is very dear to [his] heart….
town and every city will get out and raise their quota,…why it
will make him a very happy man, and happiness hasn’t been a
steady diet with our president….He’s a very human man. I
thank you. Good night.191
With this final oblique compliment—a heartfelt but somewhat pathetic reference to
Hoover’s humanness—Rogers pointed out for his audience the tragicomic extreme of the
Great American Joke; the obvious frailties of the president of the United States made him illequipped (even laughably so) to lead Americans out of difficulty and toward the realization
of their highest ideals. In stark contrast, the comedian, by virtue of pointing this out and by
introducing warmth, compassion, and the healing tonic of humor into what growing numbers
of Americans saw as a vacuum of political leadership, grew still more powerful and effective
in the eyes of his fellow citizens. Requests flooded in for printed and recorded copies of his
talk.192 Copies of the newsreel footage of the address—dubbed the “Bacon and Beans and
Limousines” speech—were distributed across the country. As the days passed, virtually no
191 “Bacon and Beans and Limousines” in Gragert, ed., Radio Broadcasts of Will Rogers, 66-7. 192 Stuart M. Crocker to Rogers, telegram, 24 October 1931, WRP-WRM, #135CL.
one recalled what the president had to say, but the humorist’s words—and his reassuring
voice—became even more legendary. The broadcast and its popular reception are illustrative
of just how completely Will Rogers dominated the liminal middle ground between the people
and the president, and how thoroughly he controlled the dance.
Not long before his death, Theodore Roosevelt prophesied Rogers’ binary influence
on American political and popular culture. In 1918 he told advertising executive and
Republican strategist Albert D. Lasker that “This man Rogers has such a keen insight into the
American panorama and the American people that I feel he is bound…to be a potent factor in
the political life of the nation.”193 A decade later, TR’s prescience was borne out. Rogers
legitimized the popular performance of humor at the expense of the presidency, and he did so
by sheer dint of his ubiquity in the mass media, his wide knowledge of and acceptance by
those inside and outside the political establishment, and by those across the ideological
spectrum. He amassed such cultural authority that when he laughed at presidents, Americans
for the most part gladly went along. He modeled the modern definition of a standup
comedian—articulated by anthropologists Edward Hall, Stephanie Koziski and others—as
one whose verbal facility and charisma endows them with social authority and credibility as
an intentional culture critic.194 Rogers exuded such authority and became more than a critic;
he was a cultural arbiter who shaped Americans’ attitudes about themselves and their leaders,
and in the process—as Hoover discovered—he could make or break public perceptions of
those leaders, however unintentionally. He was still an expert at the Crinoline, only now it
encircled the economic and political elite.
For a time during the 1920s and 1930s, Rogers brought the spheres of celebrity and
politics—and those of humor and the presidency—into such close proximity that their
convergence nearly became congruence. Artemus Ward had urged Abraham Lincoln to fill
his cabinet with showmen in 1860; seventy years later, Americans seemed ready to accept
Rogers’ observation that “politics is the best show in America” and were not so jokingly
considering putting a comedian in the White House.195 Sensing the chance to cash in on
Rogers’ celebrity and to sell some magazines, Life magazine editor and future presidential
193 Roosevelt quoted in William R. Brown, Imagemaker: Will Rogers and the American Dream ([Columbia]:
University of Missouri Press, 1970), 16.
194 Stephanie Koziski, "The Stand-up Comedian as Anthropologist: Intentional Culture Critic," Journal of
Popular Culture 18, no. 2 (1984). 195 Will Rogers, How We Elect Our Presidents (Boston: Little, 1952), 3.
speechwriter Robert E. Sherwood convinced Rogers in the spring of 1928 to throw his
cowboy hat in the imaginative ring just for laughs, although many seriously thought it a good
idea. He ran at the head of his own, brand new Anti-Bunk Party with the motto, "He Chews
to Run," a “gum-in-cheek” reference to Calvin Coolidge’s proclamation the year before that
he did not “choose to run” for another term. Rogers’ faux campaign literature boasted his
profession as a humorist as being one of his top qualifications for the job, second only to his
being “100% percent American,” and proclaimed "he would be the first President in sixtytwo years [since Lincoln] who was funny intentionally."196 Rogers perpetuated the
candidacy-in-jest until Election Day, then he retired "as a Gentleman and NOT a politician"
only to discover that he had been elected, according to Life, "by the Great Silent Vote of this
nation."197 He accepted by fulfilling his only campaign promise: to resign if elected.
Many voters were disappointed and several had more serious ambitions for Rogers.
He was recommended for virtually every level of elected office at one time or another, from
city council on up. There were legitimate efforts to get him to run for governor in Oklahoma,
Arkansas, and California during the mid 1920s. As early as 1924, there was a serious public
call for Rogers as president. It would be a startling action, syndicated columnist Heywood
Broun admitted, but an imaginative and intelligent one. Describing him as approximating
Lincoln “more nearly than any other man now under consideration,” he praised his ability to
speak with “equal lucidity to the great city and the small town” and claimed that “Rogers
talks more substantial common sense between any two rope tricks than [William Jennings]
Bryan has spoken in his whole career.”198 In a nation seemingly adrift as it was tossed
through a period of enormous social and technological change and then economic
catastrophe, he offered buoyancy and stability while simultaneously (and remarkably)
proposing radically new perspectives on humor’s place in political discourse. In 1928, even
as his joking candidacy proceeded in the press, talk of his making a bona fide run continued
(Henry Ford was among the loudest proponents), though the talk never came from Rogers.199
In 1931, he finally tired of the continued speculation and asked his readers, “if you see or
196 Steven K. Gragert, ed., "He Chews to Run": Will Rogers' Life Magazine Articles, 1928 (Stillwater, Okla.:
Oklahoma State University Press, 1982), 4.
197 Ibid., 109. 198 Heywood Broun, "Here's Candidate Par Excellence!," Washington Star, 6 July 1924. 199 Joseph H. Carter and Will Rogers, Never Met a Man I Didn't Like: The Life and Writings of Will Rogers
(New York: Avon Books, 1991), 168.
hear of anybody proposing my name for any political office will you maim said party and
send me the bill?”200 For his part, he frequently extolled the qualities he saw most valuable
in a president; conviction, energy, and honesty normally topped the list. He frequently
invoked the model of the president who had forecast great things for Rogers back in 1918
and who had been the object of his first presidential joke. In 1924, he lamented that "[w]e
will be lucky…if we produce another Roosevelt in the next 100 years."201 As it turned out,
another came along in eight.
Franklin D. Roosevelt's easy but calculated joviality––particularly his performances
before the press––permanently altered the way the nation interpreted the presidency, but Will
Rogers had little way of knowing this before FDR took office. In 1932, it was Rogers who
was as well or better known than any of the candidates marshaled by the Democratic Party to
topple the beleaguered Hoover administration. Although he continued to ridicule both
parties until his death and his independent stands on many issues made him difficult to pin
down politically, Rogers freely admitted, "I am not a member of any organized political
party. I am a Democrat," although he was also quick to point out the reason for this natural
attraction between comedians and many Democratic policies: “You have to be an optimist to
be a Democrat, and a humorist to stay one.”202
In fact, he was once again a candidate himself in 1932, if only briefly and in the
wishful thinking of his fellow Oklahomans. Four years after his lark on the self-created AntiBunk ticket, the Oklahoma delegation committed its twenty-two electoral votes to its
"favorite son" during the Democratic convention in Chicago. By the end of the night,
however, the votes had gone to the eventual nominee and Rogers lamented that he was just
another of the thousands of ex-Democratic presidential candidates, depressed at the thought
of having to "live it down" for the rest of his life.203
Rogers might have taken solace from the fact that he was more familiar to much of
the electorate than––and possibly preferred over––the nominee who commandeered his
twenty-two votes at the convention. Politically, Governor Roosevelt of New York was
widely perceived as lacking the conviction or fiscal acumen necessary to rescue the nation
200 Rogers quoted in Rogers, Will Rogers, 278. 201 Rogers, Smallwood, and Gragert, Will Rogers' Weekly Articles, 1:301. 202 Carter and Rogers, Never Met a Man I Didn't Like, 186. 203 Rogers, How We Elect Our Presidents, 123.
from its economic woes. Personally he was an unknown quantity to most people outside the
party or his New York constituency, despite having shared the unsuccessful 1920 Democratic
ticket with presidential nominee James M. Cox. Still, after a decade's absence, there was
some reason to believe he might be able to attract serious national appeal. Exiled from
political life by polio in 1921, Roosevelt battled back to prominence during his two terms as
governor. There seemed to be little remaining of the brash, young New York state senator
who, in the 1910s, initially impressed future Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins as "not
particularly charming" and "artificially serious of face, rarely smiling."204 Indeed she
observed only three years later that it seemed Roosevelt had emerged from his convalescence
utterly transformed, "completely warmhearted, with humility of spirit and with a deeper
philosophy."205 What neither Perkins nor anyone else, including Roosevelt, could foresee
was how this personal transformation would extend to reinvigorate and redefine a presidency
and a nation, both similarly afflicted by a crippling depression. Likewise, few could
anticipate that the chief executive himself—first in step with the comedian, then as the
humorist alone—would permanently alter the role that laughter––both at and with the
president––played in the national political dialogue.
By 1932, Will Rogers' singular conflation of popular and political culture had brought
him closer to the leadership and machinations of the political establishment than any other
American observer. He was so effective in making comedy and politics accepted synonyms
in the national consciousness that he was hired by the Newspaper Enterprise Association to
write jokes for the syndicate from both the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1920
(a premonition of later decades when the presence of standup comics such as Mort Sahl, Jon
Stewart, and others at political conventions became the vogue, then commonplace).206 He
infiltrated the serious work at hand with playful gags: “Mexico don’t know how to get rid of
[Pancho] Villa. Loan him to us for Vice-President. That would get both nations rid of
him.”207 Rogers was a fixture at both parties’ conventions for the next twelve years. His
political savvy allowed him to distinguish bright careers-in-the-making from among what, to
204 Frances Perkins, "First Impressions," in The Roosevelt Treasury, ed. James N. Rosenau, ed., The Roosevelt
Treasury (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1951), 39. 205 Ibid. 206 Yagoda, Will Rogers, 178. 207 Joseph A. Stout, Jr. and Peter C. Rollins, eds., Convention Articles of Will Rogers (Stillwater, Okla.:
Oklahoma State University Press, 1976), 8.
him, were the crowded fields of mediocrity. His instincts as an entertainer also enabled him
to recognize pure star power when he saw it.
Both perspectives––as a political insider and a performer––told him that Franklin
Roosevelt was going places as early as the1924 Democratic convention, when FDR first
nominated Alfred E. Smith for the presidency. Perhaps Rogers was struck by the inner
courage and fortitude that had so impressed Frances Perkins that same year. Certainly
Roosevelt seemed to be describing himself as much as Smith in his portrait of "the Happy
Warrior," even if Rogers thought he was too wordy in the process. In one of his earliest
references to FDR, Rogers revealed his rising admiration for the young Democrat's power to
move an audience. At the same time, he confirmed that his jests could still be cutting,
regardless of the party affiliation:
Franklin Roosevelt started in early this morning with "The man
I am about to name." He had the opportunity of a lifetime to
make a name for himself comparable with the Republican end
of the Roosevelt family. But no, he must say, "Man I am about
to name" for ten pages.
But when he did get to the end and named Al Smith you would
have thought somebody had thrown a wildcat in your face.
The galleries went wild and about ten State delegations
marched and hollered for an hour.208
Rogers continued to track Roosevelt's rising star through the rest of the 1920s. In one
of his "Daily Telegrams," he reported Al Smith's determined efforts to anoint a reluctant
FDR as his handpicked successor in New York's 1928 gubernatorial race. Rogers noted that
after years of being remembered as the man who "would arise and nominate Al Smith for
President…any time as many as three persons met," Roosevelt was now the one being
nominated.209 He also offered a prophetic assessment of Roosevelt's potential:
His nominating days are over, he is now going to take up
politics seriously. He is a Roosevelt by blood, but a namesake
politically. If he had retained his splendid qualities and stayed
with the Republican end of the family, he would have been
President, but I doubt if he could have retained those qualities
and been Republican.210
208 Rogers, How We Elect Our Presidents, 32. 209 Rogers, Smallwood, and Gragert, Will Rogers' Daily Telegrams, 1:260. 210 Ibid.
In 1930, when FDR won re-election in New York, Rogers was among the first to publicly
predict its larger significance: “Looks like the Democrats nominated their president
yesterday, Franklin D. Roosevelt.”211
Two years later, after the Democratic Party fulfilled his prophesy at its convention in
Chicago, the stage was set for two of the country’s most prominent personalities to perform
on the same stage. On September 24, 1932, FDR appeared at a party rally at Olympic
Stadium, which had just hosted the tenth Olympiad the month before. This night the
festivities were courtesy of the Democratic faithful from the entertainment industry, who
mustered an audience of some one hundred thousand to honor the presidential candidate
Roosevelt and to hear him introduced by the showman Rogers. The program would have
done Ziegfeld proud; it included a polo game, roping and other rodeo demonstrations, and
fifteen floats on parade bedecked with scantily clad women, all before the evening’s
speakers. Billed as the “Motion Picture Electrical Pageant,” the title befitted not only the
spectacle, but also the atmosphere as pure politics met pure theatre.212 Rogers took center
stage with FDR only a few feet away:
This is the biggest audience in the world that ever paid to see a
politician. This stadium was dedicated to art, sports…and
legitimate enterprises, hence there can be no politics. It was
also dedicated to amusement, so politics certainly comes under
Now I don’t want you to think I am overwhelmed by being
asked to introduce you. I am not. I am broadminded and will
introduce anybody. Why if Herbert Hoover was to come, I
would even introduce him….
Franklyn [sic] Roosevelt, you are not here tonight as a
politician or vote getter. You are here as a guest of people who
spend our lives trying to entertain. This great gathering
is…neither Jew or [sic] Gentile, Democrat or Republican.
Whether they vote for you or not, and thousands of ‘em won’t,
never mind what they tell you, for there is some terrible liars
out here. Every one…admire
you as a man. Your platform,
your policies, your plans may not meet with their approval, but
your high type of manhood gains the approval of every person
in this audience….
This introduction may have lacked enthusiasm and floweriness,
but you must remember you are only a candidate yet. Come
211 Rogers, How We Elect Our Presidents, 106. 212 Rogers, Smallwood, and Gragert, Will Rogers' Weekly Articles, 5:192.
back as a president and I will do right by you. I am wasting no
oratory on a prospect.213
Figure 2. Franklin Roosevelt (left) responding to Will Rogers' introduction of him at a rally in Los
Angeles in 1932. Others on the stage include (l-r): FDR's son James, former Secretary of the Treasury
William G. McAdoo, and Roosevelt campaign manager James Farley. Photo courtesy of the Will Rogers
Memorial, Claremore, Oklahoma.
FDR roared with laughter, along with the rest of the crowd and those on the dais
(Figure 2). Twenty-one years after he roped FDR’s fifth cousin Teddy with his first
presidential joke—thrown from the safety of an obscure vaudeville stage at a president two
years out of office—and sixteen years after nervously lobbing ridicule at Woodrow Wilson—
a sitting president in attendance across the footlights—Will Rogers (and, by extension, his
approving public) now effortlessly and without hesitation gibed the nation’s foremost
political celebrity, a man who sought to share the same stage with him and earn his favor.
The rally in Los Angeles is emblematic; not only is it further confirmation of the enormous
strength and influence of show business within American culture by the early 1930s, but also
of its broad intersection with political culture, and, further, of the comedian’s role as the
force that forged their union. Political standup comedy had found its voice, its audience,
213 Rogers’ typewritten notes entitled “Roosevelt,” WRP-WRM, 1975.25.0009.
and—at least temporarily—its legitimacy as a salable commodity in the marketplace of
popular culture, even at the expense of the most venerated office in the land.
When Roosevelt was overwhelmingly elected several weeks later, Rogers privately
paid homage in a long and heartfelt personal telegram that continued to offer counsel from
the comedian to the president-elect. It seems he was unaware that he was following the
precedent set by Charles Browne's “Old Showman” Artemus Ward in his whimsical advice
to president-elect Lincoln seventy-two years before. Rogers, the jester-everyman, mentored
the new chief executive on the bittersweet effects of presidential celebrity in the new media
age and—indirectly—on the power of humor:
I didnt wire you on your election for I knew you was too
excited to read but now that all the folks that want something
are about through congratulating you I thought maby [sic] a
wire just wishing that you can do something for the country
and not just wishing you could do something for me would be a
novelty and not unwelcome. Your health is the main thing.
Don't worry too much. A smile in the White House again.
Why the last one was Tafts….
And kid Congress and the Senate. Don’t scold ‘em. They are
just children that’s [sic] never grown up….
Why Governor you can go in there and have a good time. We
want our presidents to have some fun. Too many mistake their
election as going to a Vatican and not to just a white house….
Work it so that when we see you in person or on the screen we
will smile with you and be glad with you. We don't want to
[k]ill our presidents but they just seem to want to die for us.214
He specifically tutored FDR on the judicious use of the media:
Keep off the radio till you got something to say even if its a
year. Be good to the press boys in Washington for they are
getting those "merry go rounds" out every few weeks. Now
stay off that back lawn with those photographers unless you got
a Helen Wills or your fifth cousin Alice Longworth. Nothing
will kill off interest in a president as quick as "weeklys" with
chamber of commerces and womens political
214 Rogers to Franklin Roosevelt, telegram, 25 November 1932, "Rogers, Will" file, President's Personal File
(PPF) 599, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (hereafter cited as FDRL), Hyde Park, New York. Sentence
punctuation, sentence case, and paragraphing added. Original spelling and punctuation within sentences
It is not clear to what extent Roosevelt consciously used Rogers' message to inspire the
character of his administration. Coincidentally or not, however, Rogers' telegram is a virtual
précis of the Roosevelt style. Specifically, the new president's understanding and
manipulation of humor and the media placed him and Rogers in almost perfect alignment as
the Roosevelt administration got underway. Eventually, the president eclipsed the comic.
Although an individual's sense of humor may be refined or otherwise altered by
contingency and experience, its essence can not be contrived; it springs naturally from the
personality. Franklin Roosevelt was born with humor, although it took a personal crisis to
teach him how to tap it and two decades of Rogers' presidential ribbing and parody to prime
Americans' acceptance of such humor. Numerous historians and Roosevelt associates have
explored FDR's celebrated charm and good humor in general, its timeliness in the face of the
greatest national disaster since the Civil War, and especially the contrast of his warm
ebullience with Herbert Hoover's comparative frigidity. Nearly anyone might have been
considered a comic genius by comparison.
The brilliance of Roosevelt's humor was not so much in its content as in his
sophisticated knowledge of how to use it and calculate its effect on an audience. Like
Rogers, Roosevelt knew both the necessity and potency of laughter and understood that he
was perfectly equipped and ideally positioned to exploit it for psychological and political
gain at the moment it was needed most. In comedy, timing is everything and FDR had it,
beginning with his entrance on the presidential stage.
Franklin Roosevelt did not hesitate, as Will Rogers counseled, to seek out the press
boys. He held his first meeting with White House reporters on March 8, 1933. The press
conference was a Roosevelt innovation begun by TR three decades before, and was then
given some regularity during the Wilson years, but it had been alternately dreaded, ignored,
or minimized by presidents ever since. FDR, however, considered it the prime venue for
promoting his policies while showcasing his charm, confidence, and humor before a live,
potentially hostile but––he was convinced––eminently winnable audience. Although
Roosevelt's comedic skill could manifest itself in any form of presidential communication––
letters, formal speeches, and broadcasts––these were almost always heavily scripted and
collaborative efforts by numerous aides and writers. "A speech by the President was," as
author John Gunther observed, "to put it mildly, almost always a composite phenomenon."216
The press conference, however, regularly placed him before the American public by proxy,
and Roosevelt was determined to engage the press personally and spontaneously, a feat made
possible by ego, certitude, and a comedic charm that FDR aide General Edwin M. (Pa)
Watson claimed could "win the bark off a tree."217 Roosevelt's last press secretary Jonathan
Daniels described Roosevelt the performer:
He [was] the master player. He sat behind his great desk,
immobilized by his lameness, yet with the air of a great actor
who, in advance of his audience, had entered jauntily from the
wings to the klieg lights of a world stage. More remarkable, he
took the stage each time with no carefully fashioned lines to
recite and little advance knowledge of all the questions which
would be flung at him…. And in command, he was the almost
perfect statesman-showman…[the] impressario-in-chief….218
His debut appearance before the press in 1933 was greeted, as scholars John Tebbel
and Sarah Miles Watts later observed, as "the most amazing performance the White House
has ever seen."219 Greeting the assemblage to the first of what he called these "delightful
family conferences," Roosevelt proceeded to detail stringent rules for quotation and
publication, but with such winning good cheer that only the most astute among the journalists
realized he was seizing almost complete presidential control over dissemination of the
news.220 He got his first laugh within the initial five minutes, after his casually delivered but
stern caution not to attribute background information directly lest he "have to revive the
Ananias Club," which Theodore Roosevelt had founded for reporters and others who TR
believed had misrepresented him.221 Thirty-five minutes later, the chuckling, mesmerized,
and professionally emasculated journalists gave the president the first ovation ever accorded
by the White House press corps.222
216 John Gunther, Roosevelt in Retrospect: A Profile in History (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950), 121-22. 217 Edwin M. Watson quoted in Ibid., 34. 218 Complete Presidential Press Conferences of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 24 vols., vol. 1-2 (1933) (New York: Da
Capo Press, 1972), x, xii.
219 John Tebbel and Sarah Miles Watts, The Press and the Presidency: From George Washington to Ronald
Reagan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 441. 220 Complete Presidential Press Conferences of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1:1-3. 221 Ibid., 1:2. 222 Tebbel and Watts, The Press and the Presidency, 441.
Roosevelt used humor in a wide variety of ways with the press. Early on he was only
too happy to capitalize on the impending end to Prohibition to establish rapport with thirsty
fellow men who, like him, looked forward to the legally restored flow of alcohol, even if
their wives objected. In March 1933 one reporter, perhaps already somewhat intoxicated by
presidential charm, asked:
May I put in an "if" question? If, as the wire reports say, a
Milwaukee brewery sends you the first two cases of beer, will
you accept it?
THE PRESIDENT: That is an "if" question. (Laughter) Off
the record, strictly off the record, I will have to ask my wife.
REPORTER: We know the answer. (Laughter)223
Frequently his most effective and disarming humor came in short, spontaneous quips
designed to set the tone for the press conference and communicate what he hoped would be
interpreted to the public as his contagious optimism:
REPORTER: I wrote a story that you have not lost your old
smile. Don't throw me down.
THE PRESIDENT: You bet I haven't. It is working overtime.
In 1934, a frustrated correspondent queried:
REPORTER: Mr. President, I am writing something,
generally, about the New Deal and there are four questions to
which nobody has been able to give me answers. (Laughter)
Will you kindly give me something? Namely, was America,
after all, discovered, manufactured, deducted or invented?
THE PRESIDENT: I should say that America is in process of
Roosevelt was so adept at infusing general levity into the atmosphere that he often
inspired standup comedy performances from the press itself. He was even willing to play the
foil if the newsman was clever and quick enough to catch the set-up line. The result was
often an exchange that sounded more like a vaudeville routine than a press conference:
223 Complete Presidential Press Conferences of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1:85. 224 Ibid., 5:302. 225 Ibid., 3:137.
THE PRESIDENT: By the way, George McAneny is coming
in the morning. We will talk about sewers, I suppose….
REPORTER: Who is Mr. McAneny?
THE PRESIDENT: Late of the New York Times, now the
Commissioner of Sewers in New York. (Laughter)
REPORTER: Well trained, wasn't he? (Laughter)226
Roosevelt was also a master of the rapid quip, cheap pun, and the long anecdote
employed as subterfuge, either to deflect attention from undesirable topics or distract from
his physical disability. One admiring victim observed, "I never met anyone who showed
greater capacity for avoiding a direct answer while giving the questioner a feeling he had
been answered."227 Eleanor Roosevelt admitted that "Franklin had a way, when he did not
want to hear what somebody had to say, of telling stories and talking about something quite
different."228 When one conscientious reporter asked what the President's upcoming Fireside
Chat was going to be about, FDR answered, "about twenty-two minutes."229
For most of his presidency, especially prior to World War II, Roosevelt held two
press conferences a week to a crowd of journalists that swelled dramatically during his
administration.230 As word got around, the Roosevelt press conferences became hot tickets
and, as every subsequent president discovered, even those such as John F. Kennedy and
Ronald Reagan who successfully emulated them, they were tough acts to follow.
The immediate benefits of Roosevelt's merry mastery of the press confirmed his
observation––reinforced by Will Rogers' telegram––that the times and the presidency's
flagging credibility prior to 1933 demanded that the president no longer merely inform the
American public of policies and pronouncements, or appear occasionally for an obligatory
photo opportunity. He needed to take on the role of compassionate equal, as one sympathetic
to their plight and ready to help with pragmatic solutions. FDR blended sincere motives with
political necessity and public relations skill to humanize the presidency. Humor––the brand
that came naturally to Roosevelt but had been pioneered and auditioned before the public by
Rogers––was one tool for accomplishing this. For FDR, the press corps presented the most
226 Ibid., 2:161-62. 227 Unidentified person quoted in Arthur A. Sloane, Humor in the White House: The Wit of Five American
Presidents (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001), 78. Emphasis in original. 228 Gunther, Roosevelt in Retrospect, 56. 229 Complete Presidential Press Conferences of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 4:96. 230 Ibid., 1:xv.
convenient and efficient conduit. When it came to using the mass media to get laughs,
Roosevelt was more than happy to let Rogers retain top billing, although he exploited his
fellow comedian’s star power whenever possible.
FDR heeded Rogers' advice to "stay off the radio till you got something to say,"
although that something came eight days after the inauguration instead of the year that
Rogers suggested. He broadcast his first Fireside Chat on March 12, 1933, and in addressing
the banking crisis, he built upon his mastery of radio that he had cultivated so successfully on
a much smaller scale during his years as New York’s governor. The radio initiated a direct
dialogue with the people. Airwaves wafted over the heads of the press and the Republicans,
carrying the presidential agenda and voice––idiosyncratic yet upbeat, reassuring, and
resonant––into the parlors of the estimated sixty million people who Roosevelt called "my
friends."231 Far from demonstrating a dictatorial approach to the presidency, with which he
was often charged, Roosevelt used radio to encourage feedback, “not less democracy,” as he
said later, “but more democracy.”232 His effectiveness was evidenced by the estimated
fifteen to thirty million Americans who wrote to FDR during his administration, each of
whose letters were opened and read.233 FDR rarely used humor overtly in the thirty
addresses commonly identified as Fireside Chats, but his conversational manner and liberal
use of the first person endeared him to a majority of Americans.
Franklin Roosevelt could use the radio to personalize the presidency in large part
because Will Rogers had already long used it to make Americans laugh at the White House
and the frailties of its inhabitants. Historians Lawrence W. Levine and Cornelia Levine echo
others in crediting FDR with “presiding over…a revolution in the pattern of communication
between Americans and their chief executive,” even without recognizing Rogers as the point
man in this revolution.234 In 1930, when Governor Roosevelt was still struggling to be heard
over unreliable networks a scant fifty miles from Albany, Rogers had his own regular
broadcast nationwide. In contrast to FDR's carefully-crafted chats, Rogers improvised,
231 William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940, ed. Henry Steele
Commanger and Richard B. Morris, The New American Nation Series (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 44.,
Franklin Roosevelt quoted in Waldo W. Braden and Earnest Brandenburg, "Roosevelt's Fireside Chats," Speech
Monographs 22, no. 5 (1955). 232 Roosevelt quoted in Lawrence W. Levine and Cornelia R. Levine, The People and the President: America's
Conversation with Fdr (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 31. 233 Ibid., xi. 234 Ibid., x.
standing without notes before a bare lectern and an open microphone, and told millions of
receptive Americans what was on his mind, taking special aim at the political elite and
encouraging his listeners to consider themselves equal to their leaders.
In the spring of 1933, Rogers signed a new radio contract with Gulf Oil Company,
which agreed to sponsor an initial series of seven half-hour programs on Sunday evenings.
The programs proved a huge hit and Rogers continued them until his death. Coincidentally,
this gave him expanded airtime just as Roosevelt took office. On his first program––April
30, seven weeks after Roosevelt's inaugural Fireside Chat and one week before his second––
Rogers took up columnist Walter Winchell’s call for a new national holiday, President's Day,
and celebrated the new president with a combination of humor and worship that any
politician would consider priceless:
Now this is President's Day. We generally recognize anything
by a week….We have Apple Week, and Potato Week, and
Don't Murder Your Wife Week, and Smile week….Winchell
says, "Well here, if prunes are worth a week, the president
ought to be worth something anyhow."…
That bird [Roosevelt] has done more for us in seven weeks
than we've done for ourselves in seven years. We elected him
because he was a Democrat, and now we honor him because he
is a magician. He's the Houdini of Hyde Park….
[H]e's made Christians out of the Republicans.…You'd be
surprised at the hordes of Republicans who are crawling up to
this shrine in Washington to pay their respects to this modern
Now I understand Mr. Roosevelt––somebody told me he was
listenin' in. Now, Mr. Roosevelt, we've turned everything over
to you….[Y]ou take [the country] and run it if you want to, you
know, and deflate, or inflate, or complicate, or, you know,
insulate…..The whole country's cockeyed anyhow….We don't
know what it's all about, but God bless you.235
Some listeners could not have helped but to compare and contrast this broadcast with
that of two short years before when Rogers spoke of bacon, beans, and limousines, and of
embattled Herbert Hoover as “a very human man.” Once again a willing audience took its
cue from the comedian concerning its president, but this time not to bury Hoover, but to
praise Roosevelt. Rogers was still the kingmaker, and he helped to validate the “Houdini of
235 Gragert, ed., Radio Broadcasts of Will Rogers, 72-7.
Hyde Park” before an audience that by now constituted a large percentage of the American
electorate. He primed the airwaves with humor and accustomed the nation to the easy going,
conversational authority that was so critical, not only to his own success on stage, film and
over the air, but also to that of the new president and his warm Fireside Chats. If decorum
and the seriousness of the crises at hand told the president that he could not risk making jokes
on the radio to help people feel better about their country and its leadership, he took comfort
that he did not need to. The nation's favorite comedian––his political soul mate––did it for
him, occasionally on the same night.
The styles of the president and the standup comedian were remarkably
complementary. The following Sunday—May 7, 1933—marked the second of Roosevelt’s
Fireside Chats and it was purposely scheduled to air later in the evening, following Rogers'
weekly talk from New York City. Millions listened as the comic joked about sharing billing
with the president:
Now, tonight, I am on here with President Roosevelt….I am
selling Gulf Oil, and he is selling the United States, and both of
them are good propositions, and don’t sell either one of them
I am on ahead of Mr. Roosevelt. He is going to talk later on.
Generally, at big affairs, where I have been fortunate enough to
speak, I generally follow those big men, because they always
have a lot of logic and theories and everything, and somebody
has to come along and offset them with facts.
But not with Mr. Roosevelt. There is a plain spoken man.
That speech over the radio that night the banks closed, that
proved, you know, [that] he is a man, you know, very plain
He changed the thought of a nation that night with that one
He changed us from a nation of takers-out to putters-in.
That speech will, when history is written, go down some day as
being the detour sign where depression turned back….
Mr. Roosevelt and I tonight are both going to speak to you on
depression. I will take it up first, and if there is [sic] any loose
ends left, he can pick it up where I left off.
I am going to explain depression to you in such a way that he
will have practically nothing to say when he comes on, outside
of just coinciding with my opinion. You know what I mean.
Of course, he can be wrong if he wants to and not agree with
Rogers went on to humorously discuss economic deflation, commodity prices, and
executive power, all of which were central to the president’s message later; he had clearly
been briefed on FDR’s chat. As soon as Rogers went off the air, Roosevelt, who was
preparing to deliver his own talk in Washington, DC, asked through his staff that a transcript
of the comedian's comments be dictated over the telephone.237 Roosevelt proceeded to speak
of "what we have been doing and what we are planning to do" in more specific and serious
terms than Rogers had, but with the same easy familiarity that made both men radio stars.238
Perhaps he even inspired a few hopeful smiles when he admitted Americans could not merely
"bally-ho ourselves back to prosperity" despite encouraging early progress, or when he used
baseball as a metaphor for his personal effectiveness: "What I seek is the highest possible
batting average, not only for myself but for the team. Theodore Roosevelt once said to me:
'If I can be right seventy-five per cent of the time I shall come up to the fullest measure of my
hopes.'"239 Americans found something comfortably familiar in the president's words. When
the evening was over, several friends wondered to Will Rogers if Roosevelt was writing his
material or vice-versa.240
Whether it was fully calculated or not, the combination of Rogers and Roosevelt
produced a wave of laughter and goodwill in the first one hundred days of FDR's
administration that equaled—in psychological terms, at least—the surge of legislation
passed; it was an accomplishment Roosevelt considered no less vital to the national recovery.
More than any of his six immediate predecessors––all of whom Rogers had captured in his
presidential Crinoline––Franklin Roosevelt was keenly aware of what the comic meant to the
country and what enormous influence his humor and personality wielded to change hearts
and minds. In the summer of 1932, before he secured the nomination, Roosevelt was already
sufficiently convinced of Rogers' potency as a political force that he feared it could fatally
split the Democratic Party should the comedian decide to mount a legitimate campaign, one
236 Gulf radio broadcast, 7 May 1933, Will Rogers Radio Broadcasts, 1933-1935, WRM, 8-9. 237 Ibid., 12-3. 238 Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Radio Address of the President: May 7, 1933 [Internet: World Wide Web] ([cited
16 March 2006); available from
. 239 Ibid. 240 Yagoda, Will Rogers, 303.
that he knew might be quite successful. In a laudatory note to his friend at the time,
Roosevelt urged Rogers not to "get mixed in any fool movement to make the good old
[Democratic] Donkey chase his own tail and give the [Republican] Elephant a chance to win
Once the threat of a Rogers candidacy dissipated, however, the president did not
hesitate to harness the comedian’s celebrity, whether to complement his Fireside Chats or to
generate support elsewhere. In 1934, FDR instructed his aide and confidant Louis Howe to
enlist Rogers' help to reelect Maine's Democratic governor, Louis Brann. In his letter, Howe
reminded Rogers of his previous kind comments about the state and the New Deal's positive
effects on Maine's economy. Lest Rogers forget the gist of his own words, Howe provided a
word-for-word script. "What is wanted," he wrote, "is to have you talk this on a phonograph
record for the Governor to use in his campaign."242
There is no clear indication that Will Rogers made the recording (Brann was
reelected), although his close friendship with Roosevelt makes it likely. He had been invited
to the White House by every president in the twentieth century save William McKinley and
William Howard Taft, but he made seven trips to the FDR White House, often for tea or
dinner, and several times as an overnight houseguest.243 The two men maintained a personal
correspondence and attended many of the same functions. FDR staffers could routinely be
found in the studio audiences of Rogers’ broadcasts when they originated from Washington
or New York to provide friendly—and hopefully contagious—laughs for his jokes.244
Rogers’ general support for FDR’s policies never gave way totally to outright
boosterism. The cowboy could still throw barbs. A consistent isolationist (who nevertheless
loved to travel the world), he was highly critical of the country’s proposed entry into the
World Court in early 1935. That summer, Louisiana “Kingfish” Huey Long took great glee
that Rogers seemed to agree that FDR had co-opted some of Long’s plans for redistribution
of wealth by advocating sharp tax increases for the wealthy. Rogers quipped: “I sure would
241 Roosevelt to Rogers, 1 June 1932, FDR Governorship Papers, series 1, container 68, "Will Rogers file,"
242 Louis McHenry Howe to Rogers, 17 July 1934, "Rogers, Will" file, PPF 599, FDRL. 243 FDR: Day by Day - The Pare Lorentz Chronology [electronic database], FDRL. 244 See Frank M. Russell to Stephen Early, 20 May 1933, Official File (OF) 228, box 1, "National Broadcasting
Company, 1933-1945" file, FDRL, Early to Russell, 20 May 1933, OF 228, FDRL.
have liked to have seen Huey’s face when he was woke up in the middle of the night by the
President, who said ‘Lay over, Huey, I want to get in bed with you.’”245
He continued to lampoon Roosevelt, even if mildly. As a strict collectionist who
believed that loans to other countries should be repaid with alacrity, he found it ironic in
November 1933 that the United States was considering formal recognition of the Soviet
Union when the U.S. was having difficulty getting other nations to recognize their financial
debts to America. Rogers parodied the ongoing conversations between the two countries by
imitating Roosevelt and Soviet diplomat Maxim M. Litvinov in mock dialogue on the air,
with FDR trying to persuade Litvinov to recognize and buy American goods:
ROGERS AS LITVINOFF [sic]: Money! Where is America's
money? I have been here ten days. I have seen no money.
ROGERS AS ROOSEVELT: Oh, my good friend, Mr.
Litvinoff, we haven't got any money now. You see, we've had
hard luck and we’re broke.
LITVINOFF: You broke?…Then why should I recognize you?
You don't think I care about you personally, do youski?
ROOSEVELT: Ah, but we got lots of things. We got hogs,
cattle,…tractors,…safety razors. We'll sell 'em all to you….
We'll sell 'em on time.
LITVINOFF: Is it a long time?
ROOSEVELT: Sure, it's a long time. We'll give you as long as
LITVINOFF: Is it—is it eternity? (Laughter)
ROOSEVELT: Sure, eternity, Litvinoff -- the same terms as
the other nations have. (Laughter)246
The broadcast seemed to go well, with nearly twenty pauses for laughter from the
studio audience. Will Rogers had not lost his touch, but neither had he lost the overarching
fear of personal injury that haunted his conscience when he sensed he might have hurt the
man by mimicking his voice. Impersonation was still on the liminal edge. In an almost exact
repeat of his self-deprecation following the imitation of Calvin Coolidge six years earlier,
Rogers wired Roosevelt press secretary Stephen Early almost immediately asking
forgiveness from "the boss" (the only other person Rogers referred to with this term was
Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld). He continued to mediate what he and perhaps the
245 T. Harry Williams, Huey Long (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969), 836. 246 Gulf radio broadcast, 19 November 1933, Will Rogers Radio Broadcasts, 1933-1935, WRM, 62-3.
rest of the country still considered to be the uneasy relationship between comedy and the
highest office in the land:
I just guessed wrong and all was haywire Sunday night, so you
ask the boss to excuse me, won't you? This humor business is
more uncertain than politics. When you are wrong you are just
all wrong. There is no between with humor. Can offer no
alibi. Only the intentions were good.
Regards to all.
This time, the President clearly understood parody and its effects better than the
comedian did. Roosevelt had Early cable back the same day:
The boss said quote tell Will I must have guessed wrong, too,
because I liked it a lot unquote. Regards.
Roosevelt’s reaction echoed that of Calvin Coolidge, although the reason for FDR’s
is perhaps more transparent. He had a longtime liking for caricature, one that apparently did
not diminish when he became its object. He took great delight in the well-known spoofs of
him by New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno and others.249 His hilarious defense of his dog Fala
before an audience of Teamsters in 1944 stands as tongue-in-cheek proof that he did not
mind personal attacks, even if Fala did:
These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks
on me, or on my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with
that. They now include my little dog Fala. (Laughter, sustained
Well, of course I don't resent attacks, and my family don't
resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. (Prolonged
I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about
myself…but I think I have a right to resent, to object to
libelous statements about my dog. (Laughter, thunderous
247 Rogers to Stephen Early, telegram, 21 November 1933, PPF 599, "Rogers, Will" file, FDRL. Sentence
punctuation and sentence case added.
248 Early to Rogers, telegram, 21 November 1933, PPF 599, "Rogers, Will" file, FDRL. Sentence punctuation
and sentence case added.
249 Sloane, Humor in the White House, 76. 250 Franklin Delano Roosevelt, FDR's Fireside Chats and Speeches (Plymouth, Minn.: Metacom, Inc., 1995),
Like Abraham Lincoln, Roosevelt tended to bear humorous ridicule well, out of
confidence, admiration for the fellow humorist, and a personal lifelong appreciation for the
comic tradition. An avid collector from his youth, he prized an assortment of nearly two
dozen editorial cartoons from the Revolutionary era, which he placed prominently in the
entrance hall of his Hyde Park home, ready to greet every visitor with their mockery of King
George III.251 Roosevelt considered dissension part of any free society and he seemed to
harbor special affinity for protest that was creative and intelligent enough to make its point
through laughter. As a master of sarcasm and satire himself, he often gave no quarter and
usually expected none in return.
If the amateur comedian was comfortable with the humor of impersonation, the
professional remained unconvinced, even though Rogers thanked Roosevelt on his next show
for being “the answer to a comedian's prayer,” for loving a joke “whether it's on him, or off
him, or any other way.”252 He had “no alibi” to offer in his telegram to Stephen Early
following the impersonation, no excuse for tangling “this humor business” with politics,
thereby assuming that an excuse was needed. Ostensibly he apologized for the execution, not
the concept, which he thought was “kind of a good idea.”253 His obsequious response,
however, somewhat belied his comedic daring. From his initial reference to the first
Roosevelt to his jibes at the second years later, he struggled, as he believed his countrymen
and women did, with the distinction between poking fun at the presidency and ridiculing the
man. Rogers blazed the trail for American standup comedy’s assault on the office, but he
hesitated—nor did he feel the necessity—to probe its liminal extremes to the fullest. He
broke radical new ground many times while still being content to pause at the edge. He
joked to suit his times. For all of his audacity, he often seemed to observe what Victor
Turner called the “golden mean,” that is an ethic that essentially preserved the cultural status
quo even as his new expressions of humor danced dangerously around it.254 Two decades
later, the comedians who followed him and who more fully realized his legacy would largely
discard the golden mean as a luxury of Will Rogers’ times.
251 Visit by the author to the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, New York. National Park Service personnel
confirmed that the conspicuous placement of the framed cartoons next to the front door was personally
supervised by Franklin Roosevelt and that he refused to remove them, even when King George VI visited in
252 Gulf radio broadcast, 26 November 1933, Will Rogers Radio Broadcasts, 1933-1935, WRM, 67. 253 Ibid., 68. 254 Turner, From Ritual to Theatre, 32.
Still, Rogers embraced the liminality of risk and adventure as or more fully than any
other American of the age. Aviation was another of his passions; he flew whenever possible,
whether with friends Charles Lindbergh or Amelia Earhart, whether in the earliest
commercial aircraft or on airmail planes, paying the equivalent of his weight in first class
postage. He was promoting passenger aviation and looking for new routes across the Bering
Strait when he died with pilot and fellow Oklahoman Wiley Post on August 15, 1935, when
Post's experimental plane flipped over just after takeoff and plunged into an icy lagoon near
Point Barrow, Alaska. The next morning in Hyde Park, New York, still unaware of the
accident, Franklin Roosevelt convened a brief press conference where he joked about golf
and hedged about the content of his upcoming radio address.255
The nation mourned as it often has for presidents but never for a comedian. VicePresident John Nance Garner adjourned Congress in Rogers’ honor. Bells rang in more than
one hundred cities and flags flew at half-mast. Nearly one hundred thousand people passed
his casket at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles before his final interment in Claremore,
Oklahoma. All Hollywood studios closed the day of his funeral. President Roosevelt sent
shocked condolences to Rogers’ family.256
Eight days later, following FDR’s scheduled address, one listener lamented in a
telegram the loss of the interpretive humor with which Will Rogers had so often
complemented the president's words:
Again accept our gratitude for clarifying our vision. Regret
that Will Rogers cannot call our attention to salient points.
Promise to carry on.257
Roosevelt did carry on. After the initial wave of shocked eulogies there was little
public presidential reaction. In 1937, with the Depression still raging, the Oklahoma
legislature asked FDR to support five hundred thousand dollars in matching federal funds for
a Rogers memorial.258 In a personal memo, Roosevelt responded that “to my regret as a very
255 Complete Presidential Press Conferences of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 6:99-101. 256 May, The Big Tomorrow, 11. 257 Rae Shirley to Roosevelt, telegram, 24 August 1935, "Public Reaction, August 24, 1935" file, PPF 200B,
258 Marvin H. McIntyre "M.H.M." to Roosevelt, 9 June 1937, PPF 599, FDRL.
old friend of Will Rogers, it is impossible this year.”259 He and Eleanor Roosevelt did send a
personal check of $100 and instructed that word of the donation be kept from the press.260
Three years after Rogers’ death, FDR took to the radio to dedicate the memorial, summarize
the humorist’s contribution to the nation, and—if only to himself—try to articulate the
essence of what the president and the standup comic had in common:
I doubt if there is among us a more useful citizen than the one
who holds the secret of banishing gloom, of making tears give
way to laughter, of supplanting desolation and despair with
hope and courage. For hope and courage always go with a
There was something infectious about his humor. His appeal
went straight to the heart of the nation. Above all things, in a
time grown too solemn and somber he brought his countrymen
back to a sense of proportion….261
Will Rogers and Franklin Roosevelt alone did not bring about the revolutionary
changes in American comedy performance and its relationship to American presidents and
those who laugh at them. Celebrity culture and the new electronic accessibility of radio,
film, and recording would have made such change inevitable regardless, at least in some
form. These two men merely insured––by the force of their personalities and their
dominance on the American landscape––that the new relationship would bear their images.
The magnitude of Roosevelt's influence on the presidency is clear. So is Rogers’ on
American humor. In 1926, Time magazine put a comedian on its cover for the first time.
Rogers’ image was accompanied by the single word that defined him for the country:
The sudden plane crash in Alaska assured that Will Rogers’ softly cutting, always
compassionate style of presidential humor was never tested beyond requirements of his day.
He was not compelled to respond to a second, more cataclysmic world war, systematic
human extermination, or presidential power that tried in vain to keep pace with the world’s
capacity to blow itself up. Similarly, Roosevelt's tolerance for ridicule was never seriously
tried by more audacious comics less sympathetic to his policies. He died in April 1945 with
259 Roosevelt to McIntyre, 10 June 1937, PPF 599, FDRL. 260 M. LeHand to James G. Blaine, 20 November 1935, PPF 599, FDRL. 261 "Radio Address of the President from Hyde Park, New York…November 4, 1938," PPF 599, FDRL. 262 Yagoda, Will Rogers, 237.
the nation on a wartime footing, ill-suited to such humor, and with the performance of
presidential humor left to memories of Will Rogers, the president's own jaunty selfdeprecation, and to later, stealthier strategies.
The remarkable connection between the twentieth century’s most memorable political
comedian––Will Rogers––and its most powerful president––Franklin Roosevelt––began to
cement the relationship between the presidency and comedy performance in the minds of
many Americans. Both men were agents and beneficiaries of the surge in mass media, and
both masterfully exploited their new proximity to the public via radio, film, and print to
humanize the chief executive in diverse ways. Roosevelt's efforts were calculated to endear
the president to the people, and humor figured prominently in his strategy. Rogers opened
the presidency to ridicule but with such even-tempered goodwill that millions of Americans
were willing to laugh along.
The duo of Rogers and Roosevelt, however, danced a waltz that, although formative
to how political standup comedy played out in future decades, turned out to be ephemeral and
unique. Each man led by modeling fresh ways for the performance of jokes to interpret
American political power to a growing mass audience. Each, in turn, was also willing to
follow, either by acquiescing as the object of the joke, as FDR did, or by relinquishing center
stage to Roosevelt, as Rogers did. For the most part, the public was eager to participate by
buying a ticket or a radio. Growing numbers of people even became comedians themselves
by repeating the best one-liners to friends and co-workers. Americans were becoming
enthusiastic consumers and tentative producers in the marketplace of political standup
comedy that Rogers created and that Roosevelt encouraged.
But with the coming of World War II and the deaths of both partners—Rogers in
1935 and FDR a decade later—the dance ended, and without widespread objection. War not
only mobilized national energies, it also steeled public opinion against the commerce of
political humor in the interest of presenting a united front at home and abroad. National
institutions—whether religious, economic, or political—were reified anew as unassailable
weapons in what Roosevelt called the “great arsenal of democracy.”263 The Four Freedoms
that the president articulated in 1941 did not, after all, include the freedom to ridicule the
263 United States Department of State, Peace and War: United States Foreign Policy, 1931-1941 (Washington:
U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942), 598-607.
commander-in-chief for fun and profit. Will Rogers was no longer on stage, and could not
therefore argue during the 1940s what he had successfully suggested during the 1920s and
1930s—that the power of self-ridicule can not only be a formidable weapon for ensuring
politicians’ accountability, but that it can also serve as a demonstration of the democratic
values that Americans hold most dear. Even more significantly, Rogers’ national audience
was no longer prepared—given the new climate of international crisis—to entertain his
proposition that power in a democracy is always subject to the scrutiny of humor. Instead,
Americans now insisted that the opposite was true: humor must yield to power.
Consequently, in the absence of both an efficacious supply and any widespread demand, the
bottom dropped out of the market for taking jibes at America’s political leadership,
especially the presidency. Rogers and Roosevelt had been able to exploit commercial media
and performance outlets to purvey political humor in earlier years precisely because all
components of the performance transaction—the media, the audience, political comedy, the
presidency, and the tumultuous backdrop of the irrationally exuberant 1920s followed by the
depression of the 1930s—were transforming and undergoing redefinition simultaneously. By
the time of United States participation in World War II, this transformative moment had
passed. War galvanized the nation, and the country resolved to enlist all means at its
disposal, including the media, entertainment, and popular humor industries—whose reach
and influence were by now well established—to meet the clear threat. Political comedy still
shared one similarity with democracy in the collective mind of wartime America: there could
be no laughter without the consent of the governed, which, in this case, was the ticket-buying
and listening public.264 For the time being, America’s citizen consumers were in no mood to
buy what standup political comedy was selling.265
Times had changed. On the rare occasion when humor and the presidency did mix in
popular culture during the 1940s, it was often to emphasize the widening gap between the
dispensable triviality that many Americans—including many comics themselves—began to
associate with comedy and the weighty concerns facing of the president of the United States.
In 1940, Gracie Allen, the enormously popular and scatterbrained half of the vaudeville and
radio duo Burns and Allen, followed the precedent set by Will Rogers and launched her own
264 Tony Hendra, Going Too Far (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 25. 265 Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 2003).
bid for the presidency. As George Burns later recalled, “Gracie and I were spending a quiet
evening at home…[when she] suddenly remarked, ‘I’m tired of knitting this sweater. I think
I’ll run for president this year.’”266 Running on the platform of the “Surprise Party” (her
mother was a Democrat, her father a Republican, and, she admitted, she was a surprise),
Allen appeared on several radio shows and toured the country to explain her stand on the
issues of the day.267 Asked about the Neutrality Bill then before Congress, she was firm: “If
we owe it, let’s pay it,” and when questioned whether, as president, she would recognize
Russia, she replied “I don’t know. I meet so many people.”268 Although several of her jokes
brought the office down to size with observations that Rogers, Mark Twain, and Charles
Browne might have appreciated (“the president of today is merely the postage stamp of
tomorrow”), her whimsical candidacy underscored, even flaunted, her ignorance of the
concerns facing the country while much of the rest of the world was already at war. When
the public heard her battle cry, “Down with common sense, vote for Gracie,” it was clearly
understood that such light frivolity was completely divorced from legitimate political
discourse and was meant merely to delight, never challenge.269 Although festive crowds
turned out wherever the much-loved Allen appeared, and while she reportedly earned several
write-in votes in the popular count that November, no one seriously suggested that the flighty
comic be nominated, as Rogers had been only eight years before. The tradition of standup
comedy performance was well established by the war years, thanks to Rogers, and it played
its part well—as the popular antics of Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Bud Abbott and
Lou Costello, and others testified—but it was relegated to the supporting cast, part of the
chorus of patriotism that echoed the chants of official government policy.
The war footing that effectively exiled the show business of humor from the serious
business of politics not only continued after World War II, it intensified thanks to the almost
immediate onset of the Cold War. The United States—and especially the enormously
powerful presidency—quickly recast itself out of both necessity and overreaction as the de
facto command center of the Free World against communism.270 The distinction between
266 Gracie Allen quoted in Gary W. Coville, "Gracie Allen's 1940 Presidential Campaign," American History
Illustrated 25, no. 5 (1990): 63. 267 Ibid. 268 Ibid. 269 Ibid.: 65. 270 Gould, The Modern American Presidency, 109.
peace and war was now dangerously thin; it was certainly no laughing matter.
“Containment” of all kinds—Soviet, domestic, and intellectual—became the watchword of a
jittery nation, and the highly publicized probing of the House Committee on Un-American
Activities (HUAC) and the demagogic and deadly serious performances of another
showman—Senator Joseph McCarthy—deepened the atmosphere of anti-subversive hysteria.
Americans grew increasingly suspicious of any discordant sound, especially the likely
treachery of laughter in such sober times, and the country became more willing to silence
political humor, lest it be the chuckling vanguard of a “fifth column.”271 If for no other
reason in the immediate postwar era, Rogers was still remembered for being able to imbue
simple jokes with complex power. Everyone understood that such power was inherently
Consequently, for two decades––from 1935 to the mid 1950s––no mainstream
comic performer took up the tradition of presidential ridicule that Rogers initiated.
Americans preferred their comedy “straight,” free from political satire or even excessive
sophistication. Humor could safely anesthetize a nation fearful of postwar uncertainty or
intoxicate it in its celebration of booming prosperity, but Americans were generally
unprepared to laugh in ways that might provoke suspicion or poke fun at the institutions they
considered the bulwarks of their freedom. These institutions, and especially the American
presidency, became increasingly sacrosanct. As one commentator observed, “people no
longer wanted to make fun of success––they wanted to share in it.”272
The advent of television heralded comedy's “Golden Age.” Standup comedy in
particular had, thanks to Rogers and others, proven itself to be a highly profitable
commodity, but its profitability was symbiotic with that of the popular media that carried it
and the corporate interests that sponsored it. Radio, and television by the early 1950s, made
superstars of comedians––Hope, Benny, Allen, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, Milton Berle,
and Lucille Ball among them—but their fame depended on maintaining a comfortable (and
salable) distinction between social and political humor. Each comedian was closely
associated with one or more sponsors (Pepsodent was a longtime sponsor of Hope; Berle was
271 For a discussion of “domestic containment” in the United States during the first two decades of the Cold War,
see Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books,
272 Robert Taylor quoted in David Halberstam, The Fifties (New York: Ballantine, 1993), 182.
on television thanks to Texaco gasoline) whose expectation was that listeners would consume
their gasoline, cigarettes, coffee, or mouthwash with the same willing good cheer that they
consumed the jokes. The comedy, then, like these other commodities, could carry no
objectionable qualities or bitter political aftertaste. Furthermore, several of the most popular
comic celebrities, including Benny, Berle, and George Burns, were Jewish or members of
other marginal groups whose assimilation into the national mainstream was still somewhat
tenuous. Branding American products required a more exclusive “American” humor that,
like much of society during wartime and the early Cold War era, had little tolerance for
ethnic or political difference.273 Gracie Allen reiterated such “Americanism” and celebrated
the divide between popular and political culture with her mock presidential campaign in
1940. In 1952, when Lucille Ball was summoned before HUAC for having registered as a
Communist in the election of 1936, she explained that she had done so only at the insistence
of her ailing grandfather, who had been an eccentric union organizer, and that she had not
even voted in that election.274 Furthermore, she assured the committee that “I have never
been too civic-minded and certainly never political-minded in my life.”275 Political
ignorance then, far from being a liability to the postwar comedian, could be a badge of honor
or, at least, a means of professional survival. It is significant that Ball, who by 1952 was the
most popular comedienne in the country, was quickly cleared of any suspicion; the comic
wielded enormous influence in the popular consumer culture.
Bob Hope became the best-known inheritor of Will Rogers’ legacy immediately
following World War II and his popularity was even more widespread, enhanced by his long
radio and film career in addition to his patriotic tours to entertain troops for the United
Services Organization (USO). Hope freely kidded presidents but did so with their sanction
and always from safely within the economic and political establishment which he generally
only gently kidded. An immigrant who became a naturalized citizen in 1920, Hope’s deep
love for his new country quickly became reverence for its institutions of power, especially
capitalism, the military, and the presidency. Presidents from Harry S Truman to Ronald
Reagan were just as eager to associate themselves with Hope’s popularity as those from
273 Stephen Wagg, Because I Tell a Joke or Two : Comedy, Politics and Social Difference (London: Routledge,
274 Stefan Kanfer, Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
275 Lucille Ball quoted in Wagg, Because I Tell a Joke or Two, 250.
Teddy to Franklin Roosevelt had been to align themselves with Rogers, but those presidents
who curried Hope’s favor did so without fear of rejection. He was even more indebted to the
establishment than Benny, Allen, or Ball. The costs of his USO tours were usually paid by
the U.S. Defense Department and his sponsors, who expected to sell not only plenty of
product but pro-government goodwill as well. He flew overseas on military aircraft and his
material was heavily scripted by an army of writers, some of whom were also writing the
copy for his sponsors’ advertisements. His presidential gags continued the tradition of
revealing the president’s humanity, but they tended to be one-liners, bits of light staccato that
rarely probed into policy or evolved into satire of any administration. Rather, they typically
took a feathery swing at some neutral aspect of the president’s leisure activities, such as his
golf game (he suggested that Dwight Eisenhower decided to give up golf for painting
because the latter involved fewer strokes).276 While his political allegiances tilted clearly to
the right, he did not hesitate to needle whoever was in the White House, but never with
anything but the most sanitized and commercialized jokes. As cultural scholar Stephen
Wagg has pointed out, he was always careful to commodify patriotism just as carefully as he
did comedy.277 As a result, Bob Hope's barbs of straw made him a favorite of presidents,
including Gerald Ford, who considered his humor “a perfect example of how to poke fun and
not cross over that line into ridicule.”
The presidency experienced changes during the postwar and early Cold War period
that were similar to those affecting standup comedy. Just as popular humor became less
controversial as it became more prominent, the president became less accessible to the
American public even as he became more visible. Cold War contingencies endowed the
office with almost mystical importance, and an assassination attempt on the life of President
Truman by Puerto Rican nationalists in 1950 further served to insulate the presidency from
the public. The result was a refortification of some of the traditional presidential distance
that Rogers had so effectively dissolved and that Roosevelt had at least mitigated through his
jovial celebrity, even as he did the most to define the new imperiousness of the office. Yet
these same considerations—Roosevelt’s buoyant personality and his administration’s
expansion of executive powers—combined with concurrent advances in media technologies
276 Ibid., 253. 277 Ibid., 251. 278 Gerald R. Ford, Humor and the Presidency (New York: Arbor House, 1987), 50.
and the state of international affairs made the White House the clear focus of the nation’s
political gaze by 1945. Truman’s image and daily routine, as well as his policies, were
captured in print, on film, and on the air, scrutinized and then distributed worldwide.
Members of the White House press corps, who had crowded around Roosevelt’s desk—like
excited first-niters around a star’s dressing room door a few years before—were so numerous
that news conferences had to be moved to the auditorium at the nearby State Department
building, with its fixed seats, stage, and proscenium arch. By 1950, the latest and most
mesmerizing medium—television—was beginning to demand attention even if it did not
prompt respect. Less than one half of one percent of American homes had a television in
1948, but one-third of American households did by 1952.279 Truman acknowledged the
collective importance of the expanding electronic media by delivering a speech on radio or
television nearly once a month, on average, although he stopped short of permitting his news
conferences to be filmed or broadcast.280 Nevertheless, Americans who were long
accustomed to hearing the presidential voice were beginning to see the complete image of the
chief executive more often, whether on television screens behind the plate glass of the local
department store or on the set in their own homes.
For his part, Truman had neither the desire nor the motivation nor the talent to
challenge Roosevelt’s ebullient rapport with journalists or the public in general. Having been
catapulted to the presidency by FDR’s sudden death, he did not seek center stage and tended
to avoid the spotlight, preferring the no-nonsense style that was more in tune with his
temperament and truer to the workaday Midwestern political culture from which he had
sprung. His weekly news conferences were well received and were considered more
substantive—if less flamboyant—performances in comparison with Roosevelt’s, especially
at the start of his administration. He performed well and earned a warm ovation at the end of
his first meeting with journalists, many of whom were grateful for the relief from what one
observer called FDR’s “charm shows,” although Truman felt afterward as though he had
lived five lifetimes in five days.281 His personal integrity, diligence, ready smile, and dapper
dress were widely admired, and his quick if ribald sense of humor was appreciated by those
279 Gould, The Modern American Presidency, 103. 280 Richard W. Waterman, Robert Wright, and Gilbert St. Clair, The Image-Is-Everything Presidency, ed. L.
Sandy Maisel, Dilemmas in American Politics (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999), 108. 281 David McCullough, Truman (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 362.
who knew him, although its saltier components, which often combusted with his potentially
volatile temper, frequently rendered his jokes inappropriate for public consumption. Harry
Truman could both give and take a joke; for him, however, humor was more of a private
resource than a public tool.
Still, Franklin Roosevelt’s magnetic personal style made his act almost impossible to
follow. Truman suffered in the darkest umbra of what historian William Leuchtenburg has
called Roosevelt's long and powerful shadow.282 Soon after the new president took office,
David Lilienthal, chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, dismissively characterized
Truman’s jokes as those of the Middle West and “its barbershops and filling stations where
men pass the time of day, but can you imagine a Groton president saying [such things]?” He
went on to critique Truman’s response to humor just as unfavorably: while FDR laughed, he
said, “Truman grins broadly…[his laugh] is hardly a laugh at all—a chuckle, or more the
sound effect of a grin.”283 For awhile it seemed that everyone was a comedian, as
presidential jokes began to proliferate, not with the president as had been so common under
Roosevelt, but at the new chief executive. “I’m just mild about Harry,” went one popular
barb. It was rumored that he often woke up with stiff joints from trying to put his foot in his
mouth.284 “I wonder what Truman would do if he were alive,” reflected one joker from
Texas, while the wife of Senator Robert Taft of Ohio apparently originated the classic zinger,
“To err is Truman.”285 The narrow but genuine streak of public showmanship Truman did
possess might have helped to counter his hapless reputation, but it was effectively exorcised
in 1945. While Roosevelt was half a world away attending the Yalta Conference, Truman
agreed to appear onstage in Washington at a servicemen’s canteen. As he entertained the
troops by playing the piano, young actress Lauren Bacall was boosted atop the upright and
struck a leggy pose, much to the delight of the beaming vice-president. The resulting famous
photograph caused a sensation, much of it negative, and the episode prompted his wife Bess
to insist that he no longer embarrass himself or the executive branch by playing the piano in
282 William E. Leuchtenburg, In the Shadow of Fdr: From Harry Truman to Bill Clinton, 2d ed. (Ithaca, N.Y.:
Cornell University Press, 1983).
283 David Lilienthal quoted in Ibid., 20. 284 McCullough, Truman, 493. 285 Leuchtenburg, In the Shawdow of Fdr, 18, McCullough, Truman, 493. 286 McCullough, Truman, 336-7.
To many, Franklin Roosevelt, Will Rogers, and their times may have seemed to be
long gone by the early 1950s, yet for all of the chilling influences and disparate personalities,
comedians and presidents could not ultimately avoid being direct if mostly unwitting
inheritors of their larger and more transcendent legacies. Regardless of the current national
mood, Rogers and Roosevelt had established the precedent that the American people were
willing to laugh loud, long, and in community with others at the expense of their president,
both with him and occasionally at him. What is more, they would pay for the privilege.
Historian Joseph Boskin has observed that humor risks losing its communal purpose and
cultural relevance unless it adapts to changing circumstances.287 Given the power and profit
that Rogers and Roosevelt had associated with political comedy during the previous
generation, its return to popular American culture was predictable. As the 1950s progressed,
a new generation of daring, politically and culturally rebellious, and enterprising comedians
began to emerge and to re-imagine political comedy performance in light of frightening new
contingencies, including communism, consumerism, and the potential of nuclear
Armageddon. They would do battle with what social critic Malcolm Muggeridge and others
saw as the enemy of humor: fear. “Fear requires conformity,” he wrote. “It draws people
into a herd, whereas laughter separates them as individuals.”288 These new comics—Mort
Sahl, Bob Newhart, and Vaughn Meader among them—would seek to capitalize on the belief
that a new audience—victims as well as victors in the Cold War world order—would respond
favorably if given the chance to reassert their power as individual sovereign citizens through
laughter, even—or especially—if it came at the expense of those who wielded power from
the distance of high elected office. As it turned out, the panicked rumors of political standup
comedy’s demise proved to be, like Mark Twain’s death, greatly exaggerated. In fact, it was
on the verge of its zenith, as everyday Americans, comedians, and presidents gazed at
political humor across the boundaries of a new set of liminal possibilities.
As the 1950s unfolded, a number of factors brought about a revival of humor.
Television’s siren song of consumption, images of the presidency gradually being absorbed
into mass culture, and Cold War fears began to ferment in unpredictable ways, presaging a
growing discontent that threatened the status quo and set a growing percentage of the mass
287 Boskin, Rebellious Laughter, 89. 288 Malcolm Muggeridge quoted in Dudden, Pardon Us, Mr. President! , 41.
public laughing at the presidency all over again and in ways that, while evocative of earlier
decades, were wholly original. The interdependent factors of the booming postwar economy,
the meteoric rise of television, and the accompanying refinements in mass marketing and
market segmentation made producers and consumers increasingly sophisticated. Americans
were becoming discriminating, even skeptical buyers, and the burgeoning white middle class,
at whom the vast majority of these advertising and public relations message were directed,
readily claimed the right to question, even ridicule, anything they were asked to buy. By the
early 1950s television was undisputedly the focus of this consumer marketplace and in 1952
the presidency was added to its product line. Dissatisfied with the static and boring
appearance that television projected during the fifteen or thirty-minute televised specials that
represented the first, knee-jerk political use of the medium, the Republican Party was
convinced to try a new tactic for promoting its candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Rosser
Reeves, an advertising man whose no-nonsense sales tactics urged Americans to buy record
amounts of headache tablets and deodorants, invented the twenty-second presidential “spot,”
a tightly produced commercial that emphasized image over substance.289 Eisenhower agreed
to make the ads but generally eschewed television and considered the experience empty and
undignified. One disgusted observer commented to Reeves, “It was selling the president like
toothpaste.”290 But it worked. Americans liked Ike on TV as everywhere else, but the ads
subtly began to shorten the conventional distance between the common citizenry and the
imperial presidency, and it therefore devalued the presidential cachet. Increasingly, the
office could be compared with any other product capable of being reduced to a twentysecond sound byte. Americans could now choose to “buy” the president, wait for a better
bargain, or perhaps even snicker about his shortcomings quietly among friends while
deciding. Most bought Eisenhower without question, but the presidency was increasingly
defined by twelve-inch diagonal screens, most of them colorless. Television brought the
president into the home on a regular basis for the first time, but such familiarity, no matter
how adulatory, eventually helped to breed contempt.
As the decade waned, pleasing images on television belied increasing concern at
home and abroad. The postwar battle against communism was not being prosecuted with the
289 Halberstam, The Fifties, 224-32. 290 Ibid., 231.
success many expected. The military and political stalemate that followed the suspension of
the Korean War in 1953 seemed perpetual. Sputnik I, the first man-made satellite and a
Soviet triumph, orbited menacingly overhead. Intermittent recessions caused unemployment
to rise and the gross national product and fiscal confidence to falter. Such mixed signals––
broadcast over television and discussed throughout the public sphere––seemed inconsistent
with the consistently placid mood at the White House. The eminently popular Eisenhower––
the beloved general––and Vice-President Richard Nixon––the sober and assured disciple––
began to appear less venerable and more vulnerable as their second term wore on. For the
first time in years, political wags saw something funny going on with America increasingly
willing but still woefully ill-prepared to laugh at it.
In 1958, the New York Times published an article on “The State of the Nation's
Humor,” which asked a panel of experts to ponder “the question of whether America’s sense
of comedy is being straitjacketed by conformity.”291 Steve Allen, a young comedian who
four years before had helped to inaugurate a new television experiment called the Tonight
Show, applauded Americans’ love of laughter, “but in recent years we seem to have shown
an increasing reluctance to laugh at ourselves.” Author and cartoonist James Thurber
concurred and lamented the consensus from Europe:
The nation that complacently and fearfully allows its artists and
writers to become suspected rather than respected is no longer
regarded as a nation possessed with humor in depth. It is
generally felt that a jumpy America––‘afflicted with night
terrors,’ as one London critic put it––has lost its right to
leadership in the field of political satire.292
Thurber went on to offer his prescription for the years ahead. It was one that both rejected
political ignorance as a comedic strategy and urged his fellow citizens to resume what Mark
Twain had called the “assault of laughter”:
Political comedy must be grounded in serious knowledge of
our nation and of the world. Perhaps Mort Sahl is the answer,
or one of the answers. I have not yet heard him or his records.
From what I have heard about him, he will not be
291 Steve Allen et al., "State of the Nation's Humor," The New York Times Magazine, 7 December 1958. 292 Ibid. 293 Ibid.
By 1958, millions of Americans had heard Mort Sahl, even if Thurber was not among
them. Five years before, Sahl had begun to establish himself as the point man of a teeming
new generation of comics, all of them instrumental in creating the boom in standup comedy
overall, but from among whom Sahl had begun to distinguish himself as a wise-cracking
voice in the empty wilderness of political comedy. Like his contemporaries—Lenny Bruce,
Jonathan Winters, Bob Newhart, and others—Sahl began his career modestly in theaters and
the tiny nightclubs of Chicago, New York, and California. He got his first job in December
1953––with McCarthy hysteria still reverberating––when the owner of San Francisco's
trendy club, the hungry i, hired him based on a joke about the Wisconsin senator.294 Sahl
recommended that the popular Eisenhower military jacket, with its many zippered pockets,
be updated. He said the new McCarthy model should have one extra zipper, to go across the
mouth.295 “Joe McCarthy doesn’t question what you say,” he quipped, “so much as he
questions your right to say it.”296
News that Sahl had dared utter what one journalist called “such audacity at such a
time” quickly brought him to the attention of university students, a regional audience, and
then a growing national following.297 Scarcely a year later, the former Korean War veteran
and part-time comedian who had been earning approximately fifty dollars a year in the
profession was earning nearly one thousand dollars a week.298 By the time James Thurber
mentioned him in the 1958 New York Times article, Sahl was selling out clubs and hotel
ballrooms nationwide and appearing as a guest performer regularly on radio and television.
He also starred in his own one-man show on Broadway called The Next President. In its
review, Time called him “a Beat Generation Cotton Mather who gives half the names in the
news a beating” and a “nice fresh breath of carbon monoxide.”299 In an earlier, less
complicated time, Will Rogers often tried to conciliate by saying, “I hope I have not given
offense.”300 Two decades later Mort Sahl, whom Time described as “Will Rogers with
294 Considered one of San Francisco's trendiest nightclubs during the 1950s and early 1960s, the hungry i was
always spelled using lower case letters.
295 Robert Rice, "The Fury," The New Yorker, 30 July 1960, 34. 296 Boskin, Rebellious Laughter, 79. 297 Rice, "The Fury." 298 Gerald Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s (New York: Pantheon
Books, 2003), 56, Mort Sahl, Heartland (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 19. 299 "The Tiger & the Lady," review of "The Next President", Time, 21 April 1958. 300 Ray Robinson, American Original: A Life of Will Rogers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 146.
fangs,” routinely closed his act with what became a trademark goad: “Are there any groups I
Opinions of Sahl’s success were far from unanimous. Older and more conservative
audiences tended to stay away from what many in the establishment called this new “sick”
humor, alienated by his brash irreverence and perhaps nostalgic for Will Rogers’ softer
touch. Some considered his Broadway show too clever by half.302 Television executives,
intrigued by Sahl’s wit and frenetic energy, and attracted by his good looks, eagerly invited
him on several network shows (when he was asked during one such guest appearance in 1958
to “say something funny,” he simply replied “John Foster Dulles”).303 Based on his early
popularity, TV networks and film studios put him under contract but never used him, fearful
of sponsor backlash or controversy that might jeopardize ratings and profits.
Controversy naturally accompanied the highly experimental and improvisational
impulses that caused growing numbers of Americans—producers and consumers of political
standup—to reject conventional notions of comedy and to entertain new possibilities for
humor that reflected the contradictory and, for many, the absurdly laughable contradictions
of the time. In addition to Sahl, impetus for the new definition of political comedy came
from other liminal exchanges as well. In 1955, two University of Chicago students named
Paul Sills and David Shepherd—who comedy writer and author Tony Hendra has called the
Romulus and Remus of improvisational humor—founded a performance space that came to
be called the Compass.304 Their intent was to rejuvenate live theatre by taking performances
of real-life situations into the midst of working-class Chicago, whose makeup was now even
more diverse than that of Finley Peter Dunne’s day, and spontaneously play with whatever
ensued. Although the street theatre concept fell through, they settled into a more permanent
ninety-seat space, and there Sills began to experiment with games that combined two or more
performers, simple dramatic situations, and a few ritualized rules to create dynamic and often
hilariously funny scenes whose plot and dialogue sprang organically from the actors and,
once the performances were opened to the public, also took shape from the suggestions of the
301 "Comedians: Will Rogers with Fangs," Time, 25 July 1960, Mort Sahl, The Next President (New York: Verve
302 "Cleverness Vs. Artistry," review of "The Next President", The Christian Century, 30 April 1958. 303 Sahl quoted in Nachman, Seriously Funny, 72. 304 Hendra, Going Too Far, 40.
In producing scenes that forced participants to spontaneously cope with conventional
situations, such as buying a used car, trying to survive as a door-to-door salesman, or going
on a first date, players and audiences alike discovered that the contingencies and shifting
relationships inherent in such situations inevitably led away from the socially-condoned
realities and toward more honest and highly satiric truths where the ritual core of the original
situation was often revealed to be full of contradictions or completely absurd. One such
scene, entitled “Teenagers,” involved two young people on a date trying to reconcile
conventional 1950s societal expectations with teenage sexuality as they sit in the back seat of
a car. As expected, they find the conversation becoming progressively heated until the girl
says “If we went any further, I know you wouldn’t respect me,” to which the boy replies
“Oh, I’d respect you like crazy! You have no idea how much I’d respect you!”305
The sketch was one of the most popular in the Compass repertoire and starred
creators Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who, long with fellow Compass alumnus Shelley
Berman, went on to become popular comedy stars in the late 1950s. Compass theatres began
to spring up across the Northeast and Midwest. Over time, several of the scenes took on
other rituals and other subjects, including politics and the military. By December 1959,
many of the components of the Compass experiments, including several other of its most
popular performers, had coalesced into a new improvisational group in Chicago called
Second City. This tradition, in turn, became the seedbed from which comedy writer Lorne
Michaels picked talents such as Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, and John Belushi in creating
Saturday Night Live in 1975.
As these elements began to converge during the late 1950s, heralding a brand of
political comedy that became the staple of commodified political standup just a few years
later, it was widely agreed in 1958 that Mort Sahl was, as one journalist proclaimed, “our
hottest comic.”306 As a culture critic and something of a one-man Compass theatre, he
appealed to a growing segment of the postwar public that recognized humor's potential, both
for both expressing dissatisfaction with the political status quo and also for exposing the
contradiction between what author Susan Sontag called the two competing destinies of the
age: the unremitting banality of seemingly limitless prosperity and consumption, and the
305 Ibid., 51. Emphasis in original. 306 Alfred Bester, "Mort Sahl: The Hip Young Man," Holiday, September 1958.
inconceivable terror of nuclear destruction.307 Sahl joked that whenever he saw an
unidentified aircraft approaching, he never knew whether it was going to unload a hydrogen
bomb or spell out “Pepsi-Cola” in skywriting.308
While Sahl’s comedic style was thoroughly new and provocative, at the same time
something about him was familiar. His manner was conversational, improvisational, and he
composed his own material, much like Will Rogers had decades before. Just as Rogers
refined his cowboy persona, Sahl rejected the stock uniform of the 1950s standup comedian–
–suit, white shirt, and tie––in favor of a sweater and slacks. Rogers reinforced his connection
with the American everyman by insisting that, like him, “All I know is just what I read in the
papers.”309 Often Sahl’s only prop during a performance was a rolled-up daily newspaper,
which he read ravenously and claimed offered the best script for comedy. Finally, Mort Sahl
drew a crowd for the same reason Will Rogers had: he was funny and he dared to laugh at the
president of the United States.
Sahl never seemed to know that satirizing the presidency was taboo in postwar
America. It was part of his repertoire from the beginning, although Sahl’s earliest routines
jabbed only vaguely at administration policies. Not until Eisenhower’s second term did Sahl
perceive his best opportunities to take on the White House directly. In 1957, when
integration efforts were going badly in Little Rock, Arkansas, a critic chastised the president
by saying if he were really a man, he would have walked the fearful young female students
into Central High School personally, by the hand. Blending what he considered to be
Eisenhower’s slow response in dealing with the issue and his love for golf, Sahl quipped:
“That’s easy to say if you are not involved, but if you are [Eisenhower], you have a lot of
problems of policy, like whether or not to use an overlapping grip.”310
Sahl got enormous mileage from the Soviet Union’s downing of a U-2 surveillance
aircraft and the capture of its pilot, Captain Francis Gary Powers, in May 1960. In this part
of his act, lasting several minutes, he remarked, “One of our aircraft [is] missing (pause) and
one of our presidents, in the opinion of many.”311 He culminated the section by noting how
the embarrassing episode was finally upstaged publicly by the return of the nuclear
307 Susan Sontag quoted in Boskin, Rebellious Laughter, 73. 308 Dudden, Pardon Us, Mr. President! , 41. 309 Rogers, Smallwood, and Gragert, Will Rogers' Weekly Articles, 3:1. 310 Mort Sahl, The Future Lies Ahead: Mort Sahl, Iconoclast (New York: Verve Records, 1960). 311 Mort Sahl, Mort Sahl at the Hungry I (New York: Verve Records, 1960).
submarine Triton after its eighty-three-day around-the-world voyage. “President Eisenhower
gave [commanding officer] Captain Beach a medal for being one of the few officers whose
whereabouts he knows.”312
As some in the press took exception to Mort Sahl’s material, as most network
executives continued to fret, and as club managers vainly urged him to cease and desist, the
public’s ambivalent response reflected a nation increasingly divided concerning its
relationship with the presidency.313 Deference, even reverence, was still the expected norm
despite the precedent set by Will Rogers during the 1920s and 1930s, yet such tradition
seemed inadequate to the uncertain 1950s and 1960s, and it appeared inconsistent with
citizen-consumers’ newfound familiarity with the president, thanks largely to television.
Many of Mort Sahl’s detractors assumed that his acerbic approach to comedy in general––
and his mocking of the president in particular––was a passing annoyance. Others feared that
it was symptomatic of the nation’s ethical deterioration and its heightened vulnerability to
communism. Even Sahl’s growing legions of fans did not know whether he was a passing
fancy or a prophet, but they thoroughly enjoyed the moment nonetheless.
Sahl’s iconoclasm was not easy to define. As a comedic entrepreneur enamored with
success and personal wealth, he adamantly rebuffed comparisons between him and Beat
celebrities such as Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. His ridicule often articulated antiestablishment protest in radical, wholly unpredictable ways reminiscent of the Beats, as in his
reference to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles when asked to “say something funny.”
Yet, like Rogers (comparison with whom Sahl also rejected), he did so by employing a style
of humor that—although more intellectual than Rogers’—tapped into a common logic and
cultural honesty that many could appreciate during an era that seemed increasingly illogical.
Thanks to World War II and the Korean War, many in Sahl’s audience were like him:
veterans; college-educated, thanks to the G.I. Bill; and looking to redefine themselves in a
rapidly changing and confusing postwar order. Superiors, whether they were commanding
officers, white collar managers, ministers, professors, or presidents, tended to restrict this
redefinition to an absurdly narrow range of possibilities, often citing the exigencies of the
Cold War. Sahl’s performances seemed to celebrate theorist Henri Bergson’s observation
312 Ibid. 313 Nat Hentoff, "The Iconoclast of the Night Club," The Reporter Magazine, 9 January 1958.
that laughter erupts whenever a society emphasizes convention, ceremony, or ritual for its
own sake or to the exclusion of the more natural aspects of society that the rituals purport to
serve. In their zeal to direct and protect the foundational freedoms of society, and in their
dutiful attention to ceremony at all costs, Bergson maintained, leaders become mere
automatons and their followers begin to resemble puppets, all of whom are unnatural and
funny in their jerky and unmotivated movements.314 Such incongruity is certainly at the root
of all humor, especially in a democratic society; it is also consistent with the Great American
Joke. Sahl simply articulated these same incongruities for more desperate and frightening
times. Crowds were increasingly drawn to his humor and others’ (including that at the
Compass theaters) precisely because they were able to isolate such automatism and give
Americans a chance to subvert it through laughter. Some were not amused; many were.
During the high-stakes postwar era, Sahl and his comedic co-conspirators unapologetically
helped to define the battle lines in the widening cultural divide of the 1950s and 1960s, and
he and others claimed their share of defectors. Those on his side seemed to be having more
Sahl never enjoyed the ubiquitous popularity Rogers did, but he did not have to. He
and many other comedians whose style, political material, or skin color made them
unsuitable for sale on television took full advantage—as had Rogers—of the transformative
aspects of media technology to communicate their equally transformative humor.
Specifically, the long-playing phonograph record—or LP—offered a lucrative if less
widespread and glamorous outlet to television, one that allowed comics to reach a wide
audience, earn them significant celebrity, and provide their recording companies with healthy
Record companies had been trying for years to improve upon phonograph technology
that limited brittle and scratch-prone shellac records to four minutes of playing time per side
and required a speed of 78 revolutions per minute. A combination of slower speeds and
narrower grooves offered the solution, but accomplishing this while maintaining sound
quality proved elusive. In June 1948, industry giant Columbia Records announced that it had
found the answer: a record of microgrooves pressed in vinylite, a nonbreakable plastic, that
played at a slower speed, 33 1/3 rpm, not only without any measurable loss of quality, but
314 Bergson, Laughter, 20-1.
with a sound that many listeners found superior. Even more important, an LP could hold an
astounding twenty-three minutes of playing side per time. For the first time, records could
conveniently and profitably hold entire performances without interruption, whether they were
collections of popular songs, acts of Broadway musicals, symphonic movements, or comedy
routines. After only six months on the market, 1,250,000 LPs had been consumed by a
voracious American audience.315
By 1955, the advent of better yet cheaper record players made phonograph
technology accessible to the vast majority of the American public, including teenagers, who
snatched up recordings of their favorite new Rock ‘n Roll stars on another innovation: the
single-song 45-rpm record. Price wars and competition over distribution of LPs lowered the
average price from $5.95 during the late 1940s to $3.98. Even more significantly, their
meteoric popularity made LPs available at a wide variety of outlets, including mail-order
clubs. To prevent competition from smaller direct-mail retailers, Columbia introduced the
Columbia Record Club in 1955. Within two years, Columbia and its rivals had sold twelve
million LPs by mail alone.316 Consumers found that they could conveniently and cheaply
create their own performance space at home.
Looking to capitalize on the success of LPs, record companies flocked to secure the
most popular new talent for their labels. Sahl’s initial success was perfectly synchronized
with this revolution in recording technology, and he was signed by Verve Records, a fouryear-old jazz label, in 1960. Significantly, his and others’ comedy performances were
recorded live, capturing not only the jesters in performance, but the animated audience as
well, thus completing the comedic circuit. The crowd’s infectious laughter and applause
served to energize listeners, especially those who participated in the popular practice of
holding parties in their homes to showcase their audio equipment or to catch the latest talent
sensation. The pre-recorded laughs encouraged them to spread the funny contagion by
listening again and again, and by repeating the best jokes to friends and co-workers.
Consequently, although these comedians were relegated to clubs such as the claustrophobic
hungry i, comics such as Sahl, and later, Vaughn Meader, were able to popularize their new
and more daring brand of political humor in front of a virtual audience that numbered in the
315 Roland Gelatt, The Fabulous Phonograph: From Edison to Stereo (New York: Appleton-Century, 1965),
316 Ibid., 293, 308-9.
millions. This meant, among other things, that by the time it was ready for a new president
in 1960, the country was increasingly prepared to laugh at him.
Through most of the 1950s, spoken records remained a curious novelty and their sales
lagged behind musical offerings. Most were recorded collections of famous events or “how
to” primers such as Bowl Your Best and How to Listen to the Heart (which was also available
in Spanish). Novelty approaches burst onto the scene only to disappear just as quickly, such
as the craze of being able to act in performances opposite popular stars from the comfort of
one’s own living room. One such offering, Co-Star, released appropriately enough by
Roulette Records, promised to “take you out of the audience and [place] you in the center of
the stage” opposite “favorite star” Maxie “Slapsy” Rosenbloom, a former boxing champion
turned nightclub owner and apparent thespian. With the enclosed twenty-page script,
budding actors could test their dramatic chops on a scene from Romeo and Juliet or lesserknown classics like “It Happened in Schenectady.”317 Despite such inspired innovations,
however (sales figures for Co-Star are unknown), one incredulous commentator marveled at
the concept of spoken records: “Do people listen…more than once?”318
Sahl and other standup comedians proved that people did. He earned a comic’s first
Grammy Award nomination in 1959 for his debut album, The Future Lies Ahead, which
climbed the bestseller list.319 Verve Records issued four more albums in rapid succession.
By 1960, popular magazines such as McCall’s and Good Housekeeping were running regular
columns about comedy records. One writer declared that “[t]he comedians and wits are
taking over.”320 In its 1960 holiday issue, Good Housekeeping featured an article on how to
wade through the growing mountain of comedy records to find the right gift. Its opening
sentence acknowledged that “[t]he humor boom began with…then-obscure young satirist
The record boom catapulted other comedians to phenomenal fame as well, including
those whose approach to political humor was no less audacious but whose less
confrontational onstage style made laughing at the president more palatable and therefore
317 Jack Ragotzy, Co-Star: The Record Acting Game (New York: Roulette Records, Inc.). 318 R.S. Taylor, "Records from the Comedians," Atlantic Monthly, November 1961. 319 Ronald L. Smith, The Stars of Stand-up Comedy: A Biographical Encyclopedia (New York: Garland
Publishing, 1986), 185.
320 Rosalyn Krokover, "Sight & Sound," McCalls, February 1961, 6. 321 Carlton Brown, "Long-Playing Laughter," Good Housekeeping, December 1960, 30.
even more popular. Bob Newhart was the most successful of these. By the late 1950s, the
Chicagoan was fed up with authority on two fronts, although his diffident personality made it
difficult to tell. After graduating from Loyola University and service in the Army, he applied
for benefits under the G.I. Bill to attend law school, only to be told after a long silence that
his application had been delayed because the photostat of his marriage license was of
insufficient quality. Newhart was not married.322 A subsequent career as a low-level
accountant proved unsatisfying and he deserted the ranks of the white-collar middle class to
try his hand at standup comedy. Representatives of Warner Brothers Records signed him to
a contract in late 1959 and his first LP, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, was released
a few months later and was an instant hit, selling more than 200,000 copies in twelve weeks.
By mid 1960, Newhart was earning $5,000 a week.323
Newhart’s barbs were more oblique, but no less penetrating. His trademark gimmick
was to deliver one side of a telephone conversation, often with a famous figure on the other
end of the line. With phone receiver in hand, he frequently played the white collar
“organization man,” such as an advertising or public relations executive, who was
determined to superimpose contemporary publicity and merchandising techniques on some
central symbol of traditional American identity or a part of its mythic past. For example, in
one sketch he advises the inventive Wright Brothers that the only way to “make any loot” on
their new airplane is to begin booking passengers as soon as possible, and to “put a john on
it.”324 In another, he wondered what it would have been like if the art of presidential
marketing and image-making was as sophisticated during the 1860s as it appeared to be in
1960. He imagined the following telephone conversation between a slick press agent and a
rather befuddled Abraham Lincoln, as the president was on his way to deliver the Gettysburg
Hi, Abe, sweetheart. How are you, kid? How’s Gettysburg?
(pause) Sort of a drag, huh? Well, Abe, you know them small
Pennsylvania towns, you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all
(laughs). Right. Listen Abe, I got the note, what’s the
problem? You’re thinking of shaving it off? Uh, Abe, don’t
you see that’s part of the image? Right, with the shawl, the
322 Gilbert Millstein, "New Sick and/or Well Comic," New York Times Magazine, 7 August 1960, 36. 323 Liner notes on album cover of Bob Newhart, Deluxe Edition: The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart
(Burbank, CA: Warner Bros., 1960).
stovepipe, the string tie. Aw, where’s the shawl, Abe? You
left it in Washington? Well, what are you wearing Abe? A
sort of cardigan? Abe, don’t you see that doesn’t fit with the
string tie and the beard? Abe, would you leave the beard on
and get the shawl?325
Newhart cleverly juxtaposed the idealized understanding most Americans had long
treasured of “Honest Abe” with the 1960s version of the cynical political advertising
machine. Lincoln turns out not to have sprung organically from the heartland, but from the
drawing board of some advertising firm on Madison Avenue. Contemporary names are never
mentioned––such as John F. Kennedy or Richard M. Nixon, who were locked in a tight
campaign that year––but amid the laughter, Newhart’s audience was forced to wonder––
somewhat uneasily, perhaps––just what sort of political culture it had allowed to assume
control, and how much of their favorite candidate in the current contest was legitimate and
how much was constituted by the smoke and mirrors of image projected on television. What
is more, as the conversation proceeded, the audience laughed uproariously yet could not help
but wonder whether it was Lincoln who was revealed to be something of a hapless buffoon or
Anything else? You talked to some newspapermen? Abe, I
wish you wouldn’t talk to newspapermen. Well, you always
put your foot in it. No, that’s just what I mean, Abe. No, no.
You were a rail-splitter, then an attorney. Abe, it doesn’t make
any sense [the other] way. You wouldn’t give up your law
practice to become a rail-splitter, don’t you see? Would you
stay with the bio I gave you? It would save you a lot of
This scene is reminiscent of that between Artemus Ward and Abraham Lincoln
exactly a century before. Once again the comic and the president were absorbed in a mock
conversation that used jokes and punch lines to reassess relative power between the
presidency and the common citizen. By 1960, however, the prophecy that Ward had uttered
in jest had come to pass. Politics was filled up with “Showmen” who, for some, were devoid
of principles and knew only how to “cater for the public.” In this exchange, the comedian as
culture critic used laughter to force his audience and—however indirectly—the presidency to
325 Ibid. 326 Ibid.
recognize that political celebrity had become not only potent but perhaps predominant in
American culture. In a funny, engaging, but effective manner, Bob Newhart demonstrated
that, for better or worse, the presidential showman had arrived by 1960.
Dwight Eisenhower found himself in a bind as political comedy became more
popular. He was no showman himself and by all accounts he never heard of Mort Sahl or
Bob Newhart, although he could not avoid at least passing familiarity with Sahl once he
appeared on the cover of Time in August 1960.327 Perhaps Eisenhower’s ignorance was
legitimate. More likely it was a calculated non-response from a man whose military training,
life experience, and assumptions about the presidency were anathema to everything political
comedians said or represented. Warm and clearly capable of appreciating good humor in
private, Eisenhower saw little use for it in the public sphere. During the 1952 campaign,
while he agreed to reduce his qualifications to twenty-second television ads, he chastised his
Democratic opponent Adlai E. Stevenson for using humor as a tactic. The Eisenhower
campaign explained his position in the New York Times:
General Eisenhower and his advisers have come to the
deliberate conclusion that the witty jibes and the humorous
anecdotes with which Governor Stevenson is wont to lighten
the necessarily serious business of discussing grave issues may
be turned against him. They hope the American people can be
brought to resent these as a wisecracking approach to weighty
affairs and the mark of an essentially frivolous man.328
Eisenhower interpreted his clear victory over Stevenson in 1952 as, among other
things, a confirmation of this perspective. He came to the office with his reputation and
credibility already thoroughly defined by his accomplishments during and following World
War II. A New York Times reporter summarized what the American public already accepted:
"[Eisenhower] seems to like people the way a five-star general would be expected to like his
troops––in a detached sort of way."329 Such a formal approach had little need for deliberate
humor and even less use for the remarks of standup comedians. Certainly Newhart’s sketch
about a hapless Eisenhower showing up—golf putter in hand—to meet Nikita Khrushchev at
the airport during the Soviet premier’s visit in 1959 did not ingratiate him to the
327 "The Third Campaign," Time, 15 August 1960, 42. 328 New York Times quoted in Cherney, "Analysis of Humor in Campaign Speeches", 1-2. 329 Leuchtenburg, In the Shawdow of Fdr, 59.
administration.330 Neither did Sahl’s ongoing ridicule and his description of the president's
press secretary James Hagerty as “Ike’s right foot.”331
By the summer of 1960, Sahl had integrated his comic’s-eye-view sufficiently into
the popular vogue that he was hired by the Heart Corporation as a columnist to report from
both the Republican and Democratic conventions, something Will Rogers pioneered forty
years earlier. Although he did not meet the Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, until more
than two years later, he already had a close relationship with the Democratic candidate. 332
He met John Kennedy in 1959 at a political banquet he was asked to emcee and he was
nervous, not about meeting Kennedy but about mistakenly repeating any of the material he
had already written for him to say that same evening. Earlier that year, Joseph P. Kennedy
had called Sahl personally asking him to write some jokes for his son.333 Sahl obliged,
although he readily admitted that Kennedy “had a pretty good wit himself.”334 The American
electorate soon discovered this as the senator from Massachusetts began to play before a
national audience for the first time.
John F. Kennedy and the political machine around him knew the power of humor as
well as any professional comic. He did not immediately recognize the distinction between
politics and show business any more than Sahl, or Will Rogers or Franklin Roosevelt for that
matter. He had seen the combination work too well, both for Roosevelt in the 1930s and his
father even earlier; the elder Kennedy had owned the production company Pathe Exchange,
Inc. and his own film studio in Hollywood before venturing into public life. Like Roosevelt,
John Kennedy had experience in journalism. He knew––both innately and by hard
experience––how the comedic line could disarm people, especially if the story being told was
not all positive. Despite his good looks and financial advantages, Kennedy’s candidacy was
fraught with obstacles: he was too young, too inexperienced, too rich, and too Catholic.
Unlike General-cum-President Eisenhower, Kennedy had to conjure his relationship with the
American electorate from scratch. His wit would be fully brought to bear to win the election,
just as fully as his father’s money.
330 Newhart, Deluxe Edition: The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. 331 Sahl quoted in "The Third Campaign," 42. 332 Sahl, Heartland, 87-8. Sahl met Nixon at a California restaurant after his failed bid for governor in 1962.
Nixon invited him to his table where he told him not to forget to "keep a candle under my ass, and under
Kennedy’s, too. It's good for America."
333 Ibid., 80-1. 334 Pierre Berton, ed., Voices from the Sixties (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1967), 105.
President Kennedy’s sense of humor remains justifiably legendary. Many if not most
of his anecdotes and witticisms were his alone, but he did have help, especially during the
hectic days of the campaign. Theodore (Ted) Sorensen, his primary speechwriter both during
the campaign and in the White House, provided a wealth of material, as did journalists
Joseph Kraft and John Bartlow Martin. They preceded Kennedy from stop to stop as
editorial “advance men,” mining the next town for background material and forwarding to
Kennedy possible jokes to customize his stump speech; it was the first time that this tactic
was used so deliberately in a presidential campaign.335 Thanking an Indiana crowd for “a
warm Hoosier welcome,” he acknowledged that the local bank had been robbed that morning
and was “confident that [the Republican newspaper,] the Indianapolis Star [would] say
‘Democrats Arrive and Bank Robbed.’”336 In Pittsburgh he combined humor and local sports
news, a tactic he used frequently: “I am glad to be here because I feel a sense of kinship with
the Pittsburgh Pirates. Like my candidacy, they were not given much chance in the
spring.”337 In October, the underdog Pirates beat the Yankees, four games to three, in one of
the closest World Series to that time. In November, John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon
in the closest presidential race for the next forty years. Humor played a large part in his
victory and it did more than make people vote for him. Like those who follow sports teams
or comedians, it often made them zealous fans.
By following this strategy, Kennedy was clearly rejecting Eisenhower’s view that
humor defined a frivolous man in serious times. On the contrary, he used it as a calculated
point of contrast between himself and Ike; it was part of his plan to reinvigorate what he
considered to be a stagnant and dour nation, and to get “America…moving again.”338 He
was convinced that humor was one of his greatest assets in several ways. He seemed to sense
instinctively that it empowered him in the minds of the American everyman, just as almanac
jesters and comedians had shown since the dawn of the Republic. In addition, at its most
elemental, humor could serve as a comic misdirection, distracting his audience from his
inexperience and his spotty record in Congress. It could even confront his deficiencies headon, as when he at least temporarily deflated the criticism that his father’s fortune was
335 Theodore H. White, The Making of the President 1960 (New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1961), 324. 336 John F. Kennedy quoted in Bill Adler, The Complete Kennedy Wit (New York: Citadel Press, 1967), 67. 337 Gerald C. Gardner, ed., The Quotable Mr. Kennedy (New York: Abelard Schuman, 1962), 63. 338 John F. Kennedy and Theodore C. Sorensen, "Let the Word Go Forth": The Speeches, Statements, and
Writings of John F. Kennedy (New York: Delacorte Press, 1988), 105.
responsible for his candidacy by reading to a campaign crowd a purported telegram from
“my generous Daddy” that read: “Dear Jack: Don’t buy a single vote more than necessary.
I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.”339 Finally, he unapologetically celebrated
the fact that jokes connected him and his political fortunes to American popular culture, the
same one that Eisenhower (and Vice-President Nixon) largely eschewed. This was the crowd
that did listen to Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, and the other standup comics, and Kennedy was
determined to play to it.
Once in office, Kennedy’s objectives, personality, and ego allowed him to
successfully duplicate much of the public relations strategy that had served Franklin
Roosevelt so well. His regular news conferences (he gave sixty-four of them, one every two
and a half weeks, on average) continued to demonstrate his ability to disarm––even seduce––
the public and press through wit. Although not as numerous as Franklin Roosevelt’s, they
more than made up for this in terms of spectacle. To further contrast the Eisenhower reserve
with Kennedy confidence and exuberance, they were typically broadcast live on television
from the State Department auditorium where they had been moved by Truman. Members of
the media filled every seat, reminding one observer of “an audience for the Tonight Show.”340
Here Kennedy could play to the American public directly, without an editor or even an
anchorman censoring the presidential charm. Kennedy rehearsed answers to possible
questions with his aides beforehand and prepared for others he knew had been planted by his
press secretary Pierre Salinger.341 While no clear evidence points to which questions were
specifically placed among the press corps, many offered perfect straight lines for a president
thoroughly at ease in his role as showman (Figure 3):
REPORTER: …I wonder if you could tell us whether, if you
had it to do over again, if you would work for the presidency
and whether you could recommend the job to others.
KENNEDY: Well, the answer is…to the first is yes and [the]
second is no, I don't recommend it to others…at least for
339 Kennedy quoted in Sloane, Humor in the White House, 102. 340 Gerald Gardner, All the Presidents' Wits (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986), 220. 341 Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile of Power (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 326. 342 The Wit of John F. Kennedy (Los Angeles: Challenge Records, 1964).
Figure 3. President John F. Kennedy presiding over the news conference of November 20, 1962. Photo
courtesy of the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston, Massachusetts.
Kennedy also could use humor to avoid addressing legitimate concerns about his
position on various issues, including his hesitant approach to civil rights. He was asked
whether he would accept a change in the Civil Rights Bill to exempt small boardinghouse
owners––in this case a Mrs. Murphy––thereby allowing them to refuse lodgers “regardless of
her reason.” The president avoided the subject, at least temporarily and with tremendous
laughter from the assembled media, when he responded: “The question would be, it seems to
me…[is] whether Mrs. Murphy had a substantial impact on interstate commerce.”343
Jack Kennedy knew instinctively that his presidency was the prototype of a new age
in American politics, even if he struggled to understand exactly what that meant.344 Like
Roosevelt, he knew the importance of perception and at least imagined intimacy in
manipulating Americans’ attitudes toward the White House. He understood the all-important
role of the electronic media, especially television, and recognized that frequent images of
him smiling and joking played to his purported physical strengths and to his image of vigor.
Unlike Dwight Eisenhower, Kennedy had no reticence toward television or its reductive
emphasis on consumption; he reveled in them. He was, as Norman Mailer wrote in Esquire
343 Ibid. 344 Reeves, President Kennedy, 326.
magazine in November 1960, the superman come to the supermarket.345 After all, as his
father boasted during the campaign, “We’ll sell Jack like soapflakes.”346
Kennedy defined glamour and showmanship as the newest political assets, enlisted
television as his messenger, and offered humor and charm as the endearing gestures of a
noblesse oblige toward the American people. The public, while split on Election Day in
1960, increasingly surrendered to the attraction. Like Mort Sahl in macrocosm, Kennedy
smiled and joked, and most Americans smiled back, eager to be associated with his style, his
wit, and the hope he symbolized for an uneasy country. It was no coincidence that
Kennedy’s televised, entertaining, and often funny news conferences became the most
recognized fixture of his administration. Judith Campbell Exner, one of Kennedy’s lovers,
later confirmed it: “Everyone in the press really, really loved him and he worked them like an
entertainer works a room…he used them every single minute.”347
It is little wonder, then, that another young standup comic named Vaughn Meader––
encouraged by Mort Sahl’s example and inspired by John Kennedy’s magnetism (and
dialect)––decided to capitalize on what he considered to be a winning combination: the news
conference setting, the president himself, and the admiration many had for him. Not
surprisingly, much of the nation laughed along.
Meader had good models. Will Rogers pioneered presidential impersonation with
occasional and slapdash spoofs of Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt, and Americans
were long used to equating common and political speech thanks to the vernacular musings of
Jack Downing, Artemus Ward, and Mr. Dooley. Even so, Vaughn Meader permanently
established presidential mimicry as part of American popular culture. His comically precise
imitation of John F. Kennedy’s voice, as well as his physical resemblance to the president,
both defined and epitomized a new dimension in presidential humor. When his mimicry
combined with an eager audience to produce a national sensation and the best-selling LP of
any kind to that time, the debate over the propriety of teasing the presidency was forced into
prominence. The president, the people, and even the comedian were uncertain how to
respond to the liminal moment before them.
345 Norman Mailer, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," Esquire, November 1960. 346 Joseph P. Kennedy quoted in Geoffrey C. Ward et al., "The Kennedys: 1900-1980," in The American
Experience (Boston: Shanachie Entertainment Corporation, 1992), tape 2. 347 Judith Campbell Exner quoted in Ibid.
In 1962, Vaughn Meader was a 26-year-old singer and standup comic from
Waterville, Maine (approximately forty miles from Seba Smith’s and Charles Browne’s
hometowns) who was looking for both a gimmick and a break. He was eking a career out of
appearances in small nightclubs, just as Mort Sahl had years before. “I was doing a little
political standup in [Greenwich] Village,” he recalled, “and one night I threw in a line in
Kennedy’s voice and everybody fell down. So I started doing press conferences as Kennedy
with the audience.”348
Meader had found his gimmick. His break came when his manager was able to book
him on the nationally televised Talent Scouts program that summer. His performance
mesmerized producer and writer Earle Doud, who found Meader’s resemblance to the
president uncanny, physically but especially vocally. Within three months he secured the
necessary financial backing, additional writers, and Meader’s services to record a comedy
album spoofing America’s favorite clan. Presidential impersonation followed the comedy
routines of Mort Sahl and Bob Newhart, took the cue tacitly given by the humor-loving
president, and used the simultaneous popularity of the long-playing record to make its
entrance before an accommodating American audience.
Finding a record company willing to subsidize ridicule of the president proved
difficult. Laughing along with the Kennedy wit was the accepted fashion, but jokes at the
expense of this president, or the institution in general, were still suspect regardless of––and to
many because of––the success of rebels such as Mort Sahl. Some considered such comedy
treasonous. When Doud and his associates approached ABC-Paramount after three other
record labels turned them down, James Hagerty––by now one of its top executives and
perhaps sensing revenge for Mort Sahl’s insults when he was Eisenhower’s press secretary––
stormed out of the meeting. He called the proposed album “degrading to the presidency” and
proclaimed that “every communist country in the world would love this record.”349 Finally,
tiny Cadence Records in New York City agreed to risk the project.
On October 22, 1962, Meader and a cast of eleven others hired to play myriad roles in
support of his Kennedy––assorted cabinet members, NASA astronauts, world leaders,
348 Vaughn Meader quoted in David Isay, "Lives; 'Nov. 22, 1963, the Day I Died'," The New York Times
Magazine, 21 November 1999. 349 James Hagerty quoted in Nicholas J. Cull, "No Laughing Matter: Vaughn Meader, the Kennedy
Administration, and Presidential Impersonations on the Radio," Historical Journal of Film, Radio and
Television 17, no. 3 (1997): 384-5.
reporters, and of course, the rest of the extended First Family––gathered before a live, invited
audience in a converted ballroom at New York’s Great Northern Hotel to record the album.
The timing was ominous. It was the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the night Kennedy
addressed the nation about America's response and the possibility of nuclear conflict with the
Soviet Union. Meader recalled, “During rehearsals I snuck out to the hotel bar to watch
Kennedy….Thank God he took a strong stand, or our record would have died right there.”350
Three weeks later, with a price tag of $3.98, typical for the time, The First Family
made its unassuming appearance on store shelves. Within two weeks it had sold more than
one million copies and pushed past the debut album by the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.
Within one month the number was 2.5 million, with factories around the country running at
full speed trying to keep up with the demand.351 Vaughn Meader suddenly found himself the
star of the most popular record album of any kind in United States history. In the afterglow
of release and self-congratulation following the apparent victory in the Cuban Missile Crisis,
the country reveled in the comic relief the album provided while it simultaneously ribbed and
celebrated the president. Americans—Kennedy detractors who were more inclined to laugh
at the president as well as admirers who laughed with him—seemed to fairly dance to stores
to buy their copy and eagerly repeated the best moments to friends at parties or across the
water cooler at work. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders in his
Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who were beginning to plan the next spring’s
march on Birmingham, Alabama, noted that the album was helping to make the white world
“too happy for civil rights.”352 Eventually The First Family won the Grammy Award for
“Album of the Year” and sold in excess of 7 million copies, not only eclipsing My Fair Lady,
the previous record-holder, but also far outselling Mort Sahl’s latest effort, The New
Frontier. Ironically, it took an album memorializing Kennedy two years later to outsell it.
As many critics pointed out, the brand of parody in The First Family was not overly
intellectual, which helped account for its wide popular appeal. It entertained, according to
Time, more with “gags” than “wit.”353 In one sketch, the White House nanny asks the
president to help her tell which bathtub toys––including eighteen toy PT boats––belong to his
350 Meader quoted in Smith, The Stars of Stand-up Comedy: A Biographical Encyclopedia, 147-48. 351 Peter Bunzel, "A Kennedy Spoof Full Of "Vigah"," Life, 14 December 1962, 83. 352 Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (New York: Simon and Schuster,
353 "The First Family," Time, 30 November 1962.
daughter Caroline and which to son John, Jr. Meader as Kennedy proceeds to apportion
them, concluding vehemently that “the rubber swan is mine!”354
Such broad jokes, however, were complemented by flashes of keen political insight
and biting satire. During a spoof of Jacqueline Kennedy’s televised tour of the White House
with CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood, she is interrupted by the freshly showered,
dripping, and thoroughly lost President Kennedy, who is late for a meeting and therefore
anxious to “move ahead toward our bedroom with great vigor.” She directs him through the
maze of official rooms, among them “the Andrew Jackson Smoking Room…the Woodrow
Wilson Ping-Pong Room…the President Grant Drinking Room [and] past the Richard Nixon
Dumbwaiter….”355 During the album’s mock press conference, the president is asked,
“Sir…when will we send a man to the Moon?” to which a deadpan Kennedy instantly replies,
“Whenever Senator Goldwater wants to go.”356 Another exchange in this same sketch
conjured memories of Kennedy's strategy during the campaign to defuse questions about his
Catholicism, this time with a twist:
REPORTER: Now that you’re in office, what do you think the
chances are for a Jewish president?
MEADER AS KENNEDY: Well, I think they’re pretty good.
Now let me say I don’t see why a person of the Jewish faith
can’t be president of the United States. I know, as a Catholic, I
could never vote for him, but other than that….357
Audiences embraced the album. Critics declared The First Family “the hit record to
end hit records,” and Meader was in demand.358 He was heard on radio stations across the
country, asked for interviews by national publications, and booked at clubs and on The Ed
Sullivan Show. A novelty photo album of the faux “first family” was released.359 The record
itself and the attendant appearances earned Meader an estimated $750,000 within one year.
Inside the White House, not everyone was laughing. The Kennedy administration––
used to choreographing the laughter––had less experience as the punch line of the joke.
Publicly, the president responded cordially to the album during a news conference, although
354 Bob Booker and Earle Doud, The First Family (New York: Cadence Records, 1962). 355 Ibid. 356 Ibid. 357 Ibid. 358 "Follow-the-Meader," Newsweek, 14 January 1963. 359 Earle Doud and Bob Booker, The First Family Photo Album (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, 1963).
his comments do not reveal the good-natured joviality and appreciation that most observers
interpreted at the time. In fact, his first choice of words is instructive, and his statement
overall was somewhat contradictory and non-committal, reflecting the struggle behind closed
doors as to what to do about those who mimicked the president for fun and profit. He was
asked whether other recent printed lampoons and The First Family in particular caused
“annoyment or enjoyment”:
KENNEDY: Annoyment. (Laughter) No, they produce...yes, I
have read and listened. Actually, I listened to Mr. Meader's
record but I thought it sounded more like Teddy than it did
me...so he’s annoyed.360
Kennedy handled the question with his signature skills of deflection and humorous
distraction. Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, insisted years later that “President
and Mrs. Kennedy took the Meader album in very good humor.”361 According to some
reports, the White House ordered more than one hundred copies.362 Behind the scenes,
Kennedy grappled with his response to a phenomenon that at once humanized and endeared
him to the public—which he considered crucial to his success—and yet trivialized the
prestige of the imperial presidency, which he staunchly endorsed. Prior to his apparently
gracious public response, Kennedy met with aide Kenneth P. O'Donnell and assistant press
secretary Malcolm M. Kilduff. They agreed “that nothing could be done about this particular
record. However, the President thought it might be useful to get some trade magazine to
blast this sort of thing.”363 The following spring, Salinger, presumably on orders from the
president, contacted Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission,
and asked him to “look into” the matter, although it is not clear what, if anything, was
done.364 Kennedy, as the first president subjected to such widely popular impersonation,
danced around the success of The First Family with surprise, uncertainty, muted resentment,
and perhaps private appreciation. The nation responded in much the same way.
360 Presidential news conference, 12 December 1962, excerpted on The Wit of John F. Kennedy. 361 Pierre Salinger, With Kennedy (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966), 316. 362 "'Good-Night, Jackie...Good-Night, Bobby'," Newsweek, 3 December 1962. 363 Malcolm Kilduff to Pierre Salinger, memorandum, 29 November 1962, White House Central Subject Files
(hereafter cited as WHCSF), box 832, "PR 15-6 Impersonations" file, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston,
Mass. (hereafter cited as JFKL).
364 Pierre Salinger to John F. McCullough, 12 April 1963, WHCSF, box 832, "PR 15-6 Impersonations" file,
Public reaction to the record poured into the White House. It adds insight beyond that
indicated by the raw sales figures, and reflects the debate inside the Oval Office and among
the public at large. Kennedy received numerous letters and telegrams representing the full
spectrum of response, from delight to disgust. Many correspondents revealed a tentative sort
of uncertainty—as if to acknowledge that the controversy itself was unprecedented—and
these people looked to the president for guidance on the advisability of such humor. Several
authors, producers, and theatre companies––eager to cash in on the First Family craze––
assumed that such satire required presidential approval and wrote to request it. The
administration tersely replied that none was needed.365 In mid-1963, the chairman of the
Grand Street Boys' Association, a private philanthropic organization, wrote Kennedy for
permission to include The First Family in care packages being readied for veterans’ hospitals
and numerous overseas schools and orphanages.366 The chairman’s initial enthusiasm over
“the very generous contribution” of the records dimmed when Kennedy aide Lee C. White,
fearful of the parody’s possible negative impact overseas, offered “in all frankness that were
the decision ours we would limit the distribution to the United States.”367 The man promptly
wrote back to report that the album had been removed and to offer for the first time,
“Frankly, this is a mutual feeling.”368
Kennedy also received a large number of letters from young people fascinated by the
album and anxious to know his response. One Cornell University freshman wrote Kennedy
to report how popular The First Family was on campus even though “[m]any of my friends
feel that, since it ridicules your family, it is not very popular with you.” He bet his
classmates that “if I made a trip to Washington during Christmas vacation, you would take
time…to autograph the record for me.”369 The president’s office dismissed the idea of such a
meeting. Nevertheless, in the minds of many, especially many of those in the younger
generation that he so profoundly inspired—the star-struck young man from Cornell among
them—President Kennedy was not only a celebrity whose autograph on a hit LP was
something to be coveted, he also appeared to be a complicit partner in the brave new world of
comedic egalitarianism that Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, Vaughn Meader, and others seemed to
365 Salinger to Tom Crabtree, 9 March 1963, WHCSF, box 832, "PR 15-6 Impersonations" file, JFKL. 366 George I. Silberberg to Kennedy, 9 May 1963, WHCSF, box 832, "PR 15-6 Impersonations" file, JFKL. 367 Lee C. White to Silberberg, 10 June 1963, WHCSF, box 832, "PR 15-6 Impersonations" file, JFKL. 368 Silberberg to White, 15 June 1963, WHCSF, box 832, "PR 15-6 Impersonations" file, JFKL. 369 Charles B. Craver to Kennedy, 3 December 1962, WHCSF, box 832, "PR 15-6 Impersonations" file, JFKL.
be defining. Certainly he would not object to, but rather champion, such humor. In fact, the
right to laugh at the expense of the presidency was something about which many in the
country—including the president—still had serious doubt, despite the record sales. The
doubts and the debate continued through November 1963, but so did the laughter, the sales,
and the celebrity.
Even Vaughn Meader and the producers of The First Family were uncertain about the
effects of the record and the ramifications of impersonation in general. Meader never met
Kennedy, but in a telling coincidence, he sent a telegram to the president after his debut on
Talent Scouts in June 1962, before the album was recorded. It was hauntingly reminiscent of
Will Rogers’ messages to Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt after his attempts at
Dear Mr. President,
I respectfully call your attention to the Talent Scouts Show
which we taped last night for viewing on CBS Television
Tuesday night, July 3, 10:00 PM. I impersonated you but I did
it with great affection and respect. Hope it meets with your
Similarly, the dust jacket of The First Family included a mild disclaimer,
emphatically asserting from the outset: “This album is for fun!…No one has more respect for
the high offices and the people suggested here than those of us who…[put] this
together….This album can be played loudly at any time,…anywhere people have a right to
laugh.”371 The sensational popularity of comedy albums in general and the president’s own
good humor made Meader and Doud reasonably sure that it was safe to take aim at Kennedy
this way, but there was no harm in hedging their bets.
Despite the lucrative response to The First Family, by the middle of 1963 Vaughn
Meader thought it wise to ease the Kennedy material out of his act. Although the president’s
chances for re-election in 1964 looked strong, interest in the impersonation certainly would
not remain at stratospheric levels, and Meader was determined to broaden his reputation
beyond mimicry. In early November 1963, he recorded an album called Have Some Nuts!!,
370 Vaughn Meader to Kennedy, telegram, 26 June 1962, White House Central Name File, "Vaughn Meader"
file, JFKL. Sentence punctuation and sentence case added.
371 Liner notes on album cover of Booker and Doud, The First Family.
which parodied communists, the Ku Klux Klan, unions, and the Bay of Pigs invasion but did
not mention Kennedy.372 On November 22, with the new album not yet released, the New
York Post included an article in its morning edition with the headline, “JFK Record is
Haunting Vaughn Meader.”373
For the time being, though, the comedian still gladly accepted the bookings that took
him and his famous imitation across the country, so that day—the same one that Jack
Kennedy flew to Dallas—Meader flew to Milwaukee to perform at a comedy show. Stepping
into a taxi, he greeted the driver, who turned to him and asked, “Hey, did you hear about
Kennedy in Dallas?” Clearly this was the setup for yet another Kennedy joke, another
unsolicited gag from a well-meaning fan. It seemed the entire country still wanted in on the
act. The comic obliged. “No, how does it go?”374
At a time when the comedian, the president, and the American people were dancing
so closely together, Meader’s error was both absurdly tragic and thoroughly understandable.
Together with Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, and others, Meader had become both a producer and
a beneficiary of a thriving mass economy whose currency was jokes and laughs and whose
transactions permanently affected American popular and political culture. Now, however,
Kennedy was dead and although the president and Meader rose to national stardom together
in many ways, in late 1963 the impersonator found himself mimicking Kennedy one last
time, unknowingly and unwillingly riding the president’s bloody coattails toward oblivion.
372 Michael Ross, Ron Friedman, and Larry Siegel, Have Some Nuts!! (New York: Verve Records, 1963). 373 Smith, The Stars of Stand-up Comedy: A Biographical Encyclopedia, 148. 374 Isay, "Lives; 'Nov. 22, 1963, the Day I Died'."
Dancing for Dollars
The first days and weeks after John F. Kennedy’s assassination were as unkind to political
standup comedy as they were to the grieving nation. The First Family was removed from
shelves, as was a sequel, The First Family Volume II, which was released that spring. The
horrors in Dallas prompted the albums’ producers to call Cadence Records and ask that all
unsold copies be returned to warehouses and ground up out of respect for the murdered
president and his family. They were. Nightclubs were empty the entire weekend of the
assassination. On Broadway, where Mort Sahl had assailed Dwight Eisenhower more than
five years before, the theaters, clubs, and restaurants went dark for days. Even the film
industry was shaken. The official preview screening for Stanley Kubrick’s black political
satire, Dr. Strangelove, was postponed and editors hastily dubbed over a coincidental, offcolor reference to Dallas made by Major T. J. “King” Kong, a B-52 pilot played by actor
Slim Pickens, and replaced it with an allusion to Las Vegas instead.375 American show
business deferred completely to the tragic spectacle in Texas and Washington, DC. In death
as in life, Kennedy drew a crowd and got top billing. Variety, the entertainment trade
weekly, estimated the cost of the television coverage of the murder and the funeral during the
five days following the assassination to be $40 million.376
One of the first comedians to return to the stage was Lenny Bruce, who appeared
before a muted audience at the Fox Theatre in lower Manhattan four days after the killing.
Bob Booker, one of the creators of The First Family, was in the small crowd when Bruce
took the stage, looked at the audience, and said: “Boy, did Vaughn Meader get fucked.”377
Bruce’s remark was prophetic in several ways. Meader was personally devastated
and never imitated Kennedy for profit again. He did attempt a comeback in January 1964 at
the same club where he launched his famous impersonation, but he foundered through an
assortment of non-Kennedy material groping for laughs, without much success. “In the end,”
375 David Naylor, Inside the Making of Dr. Strangelove (Columbia Tristar Home Video, Inc., 2000), video
376 "Tv's $40,000,000 Jfk Coverage," Variety, 27 November 1963. 377 Lenny Bruce quoted in Cull, "No Laughing Matter," 394.
said the critic from Time, “he…scored on about 35% of his shots.”378 Similar reviews from
Newsweek and Variety assured the early close of his act. Alcohol, cocaine, and heroin
addictions followed, and although he made two more attempts to revive his career with a pair
of comedy albums later in the decade, neither was successful.379 Vaughn Meader eventually
returned to his home state of Maine where he died in October 2004, largely forgotten.
Bruce might have said the same thing about Mort Sahl. Sahl’s barbs at Dwight
Eisenhower helped elect Jack Kennedy, but when he entered the White House, the new
president became fair game. Sahl pursued the New Frontier in ways true to his iconoclastic
tradition, criticizing policy, attacking the Bay of Pigs invasion, and ridiculing the Kennedys
as America’s “royal family.”380 In what would prove to be a haunting reference, Sahl
claimed in 1961 that he could put to rest the rumor that Cubans were out to assassinate the
entire Kennedy family: “Castro denied it, claiming they had insufficient ammunition.”381
As Kennedy’s popularity grew, Sahl’s began to decline. Although the president once
praised his “relentless pursuit of everybody,” the comic’s ridicule ostracized him from the
White House and the Democratic Party, which considered him a traitor to the president.382
After Kennedy’s victory, Sahl responded on stage to those who assumed that Kennedy’s
election was what he wanted, saying “You didn’t have to do it for me!”383 Even his agent
told him he resented the comments about the president, and while Vaughn Meader’s topselling imitation was earning him an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963, Sahl was
being dropped from Sullivan’s and others’ guest lists.384 In the early 1960s, the comedian’s
annual income plummeted from $400,000 to $19,000, and he claimed he was the victim of
The Kennedy assassination killed Meader’s career outright and crippled Sahl’s. As
the presidential showmen whose material associated them most closely with the showman
president, they had the most to lose when the market for presidential humor temporarily
collapsed. Kennedy’s performance in the office had become so ubiquitously displayed in
378 "Fate of the Myna Bird," Time, 10 January 1964. 379 Isay, "Lives; 'Nov. 22, 1963, the Day I Died'." 380 Mort Sahl, The New Frontier (Burbank, CA: Reprise Records, 1961). 381 Ibid. 382 "The Third Campaign," 42. 383 Sahl, The New Frontier. 384 Nat Lehrman, "Playboy Interview: Mort Sahl," Playboy, February 1969, 60. 385 Ibid.
the mass media that show business and the business of politics became conflated in the
popular culture to an extent that has not been duplicated since. Although Kennedy and
Meader never met, their relationship through laughter was multi-layered, even intimate.
Kennedy’s jokes at news conferences melded fluidly into Meader’s parody of the news
conference on The First Family and then back again as Meader and his album became the
topic of conversation, first at Kennedy’s news conference in December 1962 and then behind
closed doors as comedy performance and how to respond to it became a matter of
presidential policy. Humor intertwined so closely the rituals of presidential custom with
labile moments of cultural play that many Americans could not always tell the difference
between the president and the comedian. After all, the Cornell freshman who wrote to
Kennedy after listening to The First Family wanted Kennedy’s autograph, not Meader’s, as
though the president himself had performed on the album. Americans played the LP
repeatedly during late 1962 and through most of 1963, and even organized social occasions
around playing it so that the performance could be experienced again and again before an
ever-shifting audience. Many people committed one-liners or entire sections to memory and
then took great delight in becoming comedians themselves by imitating the comic’s imitation
of the president. Thanks to The First Family, Meader and Kennedy came together in much
the same way that Artemus Ward had encountered Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Mr. Dooley
had met William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the century, and Will
Rogers had shared the stage with Franklin Roosevelt at Olympic Stadium in 1932. The
comic became the mediating force between the people and the president, empowering the
former through presidential ridicule that simultaneously humanized the latter by poking fun
at his vulnerabilities. Meader’s record, however, was able to accomplish this on an
unprecedented and massive scale and in particular response to postwar American
contingencies, thanks to the media at hand, a culture that Ward, Dooley, and especially
Rogers had created that made Americans more receptive to such humor, and a president who
was a comedic co-conspirator, if not always willingly. In the immediate aftermath of Dallas,
where the president’s mortal vulnerabilities were graphically demonstrated, not by punch
lines but bullets, no one—neither the president nor the grieving audience nor even the
comics—was left unaffected.
In time, however, the convergence of forces that led to the wide acceptance of The
First Family and the political material of other standup performers during the early 1960s
proved lasting. Despite the muting effect that Kennedy’s death had on presidential humor in
general and individual careers at the end of 1963, the commodification of such comedy
crystallized rapidly during the next decade. The close proximity of the comic and the
president, and the endorsement of this closeness by an American public that clamored for the
album and delighted in performing themselves, consummated the modern relationship
between the people, the president, and the standup comic, and gave license to all three to
exploit this familiarity to their own devices. More often than not the new familiarity bred if
not contempt then a casual attitude toward the pretension of power; nevertheless, the joking
at the expense of the president that had been a liminal form of political and cultural
interaction since the mid 1930s became increasingly accepted by its very radicalism and
gained complete commercial—if not cultural—legitimacy by the 1970s.
Political humor began to emanate more widely from a public sphere that was
increasingly attuned to such humor’s potency but no longer content to act merely as
audience. Just as activist and author Todd Gitlin and others have described the 1960s as
years of hope followed by days of rage, the performance of political comedy in all its
forms—impersonation, parody, invective, satire—was similarly transformed from a
relatively exclusive form created by professionals to one that emerged more commonly from
the grassroots.386 Many Americans found that repeating Mort Sahl’s best barbs and
impersonating Jack Kennedy by mimicking Vaughn Meader had empowered them as
consumer-comedians and, like Will Rogers, they found plenty to joke about in the daily
newspaper and in the White House of their own times. Thanks to the cumulative effect of
Rogers’ performances as well as those of Meader, Sahl, Newhart, and others during the
earlier 1960s, an edgier guerilla humor began to be accepted into mainstream commercial
culture, and by the 1970s, it was being replicated wholesale by producers who were
increasingly convinced of the widespread marketability of this more acerbic strain of political
Everyday Americans increasingly reveled in performing the role of comedian. The
professionals had taught them that laughter is one of the few and most unnerving weapons
386 Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1993).
available to those who might consider themselves to be powerless otherwise.387 Historian
Joseph Boskin has extensively studied the rise of “people’s humor” during the 1950s and
especially the 1960s, when diverse groups including middle class office workers and the
growing counterculture began to engage in comedy performance as a revolt against the status
quo. Using casual dialogue in the workplace or other more innovative print media such as
graffiti or underground newspapers, people improvised comedy responses to what they
perceived as increasingly disparate power relationships. These responses included the
“elephant joke” cycle that underscored the pervasive influence of gargantuan economic or
political institutions in American life and their inability to effectively address common
problems by introducing the absurdity of an elephant into everyday situations. One popular
elephant joke asked “How can you keep an elephant from charging?” The answer: “Take
away his credit card.”388 The president became the butt of jokes that often began as graffiti
or bumper stickers but then got laughs from ad hoc audiences when they were repeated in the
workplace or at parties. One popular example, repeated during Lyndon Johnson’s escalation
of American involvement in the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1968, urged Americans to
“Commit LBJ, not the U.S.A.”389 More famously, activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman
choreographed members of their Youth International Party or “Yippies” into a parading
troupe of comedians by nominating “Pigasus,” a pig, for president in the streets outside the
Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. 390 Having learned indirectly from the
presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Jack Kennedy, Hoffman and his fellow performers
became adept at manipulating the news media to play their brand of comedy to a mass
audience that included fellow Americans, the professional comics, and presidents. With the
jesters becoming so numerous and savvy, political comedy became a veritable “dance-in.”
By the late 1960s, the distance between social and political humor that had been so
critical to the survival of Lucille Ball, George Burns, and other standup comics during the
early Cold War period was closing quickly. This was thanks largely to the success of The
First Family and the closer proximity of humor and politics during the Kennedy years, but
other factors were at work as well. The burgeoning civil rights movement and the
387 Joseph Boskin, Humor and Social Change in Twentieth-Century America (Boston: Trustees of the Public
Library of the City of Boston, 1979), 65.
388 Boskin, Rebellious Laughter, 66. 389 Ibid., 93. 390 Abbie Hoffman, Revolution for the Hell of It (New York: Dial Press, 1968).
intensifying debate over the Vietnam War divided Americans along lines of race, class, and,
increasingly, gender. The definition of what it was to be “American”—uncompromising in
the years immediately following World War II—was becoming highly contested.
Traditionally marginalized groups—Jews, Hispanics, women, and especially AfricanAmericans—began to successfully utilize performance to ridicule the tenacious and
laughable disparities— political as well as social—that they observed in the country. Some
accomplished this more obliquely and therefore more lucratively, such as Bill Cosby, whose
hilarious but non-confrontational stories of growing up in urban North Philadelphia
heightened national consciousness concerning ghetto life even as the exploits of Fat Albert
and Weird Harold tickled funny bones.
Others assailed these issues with humor that was more trenchant and political. Like
most other black comedians, Dick Gregory struggled in the relative obscurity and raw
poverty of being relegated to the low-paying black-only nightclubs, but in January 1961 he
became the first African-American to cross the comedy color line and achieve significant
success in the business when he was asked to stand in for the resident comic at Chicago’s
Playboy Club. The show, which was performed before a crowd of frozen-food
conventioneers from the South, appeared doomed when he took the stage to ice-cold stares
and insulting remarks. Then he began to speak:
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I understand there are a
good many Southerners in the room tonight. I know the South
very well. I spent twenty years there one night….
Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant, and
this white waitress came up to me and said: “We don’t serve
colored people here.”
I said: “That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a
whole fried chicken.”391
His audience was quickly won over and the scheduled fifty-minute performance went on for
twice that long. Several in the audience tipped him as they went out and Playboy owner
Hugh Hefner, who caught that night’s second show, signed Gregory to a three-year
391 Dick Gregory and Robert Lipsyte, Nigger (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1964), 158-60. 392 Ibid., 161.
Gregory poked fun at the presidency with an easy confidence that reflected his wide
experience crossing lines and breaking taboos; the liminal moment in a Gregory performance
before an audience that was often overwhelmingly white was, after all, the performance
itself. He signed his first record contracts with Vee-Jay Records and Colpix Records later in
1961 and included jokes about the Kennedy administration from the beginning. One of his
first albums, East and West, made frequent references to Kennedy’s foreign policy troubles
in the wake of the Bay of Pigs debacle and his disappointing meeting with Nikita
Khrushchev in Vienna. Following the successful flight of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin,
he speculated that the frustrated president “probably went downstairs and kicked
Caroline.”393 It was a daring joke, especially from a black comedian in 1961, but the
intimate gathering at San Francisco’s hungry i—where the second side of the album was
recorded—laughed appreciatively. Thanks to Mort Sahl, Gregory could supplement his own
confidence in such material with the inner assurance that audiences were increasingly
receptive to it. In 1964’s presidential election he compared the choice between Johnson and
Barry Goldwater to being forced to choose between a full-time prostitute and a weekend
prostitute, saying “If you choose the lesser of two evils and marry the weekend prostitute,
you’re only fooling yourself if you don’t think you’re marrying a whore.”394
album, Dick Gregory for President, he imagined himself as the first African-American in the
White House, and previewed for the delighted audience his pragmatic and decidedly ethnic
approach to Cold War diplomacy:
You heard what Bobby Kennedy said, that thirty years from
this year a Negro can become president? Wouldn’t that be
swingin’? Wouldn’t that be the damndest? Can’t you just
imagine me president? If you’ve got a lot of problems and you
decide to call the White House, I’ll pick up the phone and say
“Hey, baby!” Wouldn’t that be wild? Why if I was president
of this country, I’d bring Khrushchev over here, give him some
chitlins and he’d give us Berlin back.395
Even if Robert Kennedy’s prediction proved to be wildly optimistic, Gregory’s humor gave
his audience a fleeting but hopeful glimpse of empowerment validated by the solidarity that
is produced through communal laughter. Just as Mr. Dooley bridged the seemingly gaping
393 Dick Gregory, East and West (New York: Colpix Records, 1961), sound recording. 394 Dick Gregory quoted in Smith, The Stars of Stand-up Comedy: A Biographical Encyclopedia, 96. 395 Dick Gregory, Dick Gregory for President ([Los Angeles]: Vee-Jay Records, 1964), sound recording.
distance between President McKinley and the Irish-Americans of Chicago by whimsically
imaging the president at his bar for a drink at the turn of the century, Gregory was able to do
the same for those Americans in the tumultuous 1960s who wondered when and if the
country’s least powerful citizens historically would be able to enjoy the full fruit of its
political power. In the meantime, he offered short and funny bursts of humor—very often
cutting—that provided a liberating measure of resistance and control. Such comedy had
always existed—created in relative obscurity and shared in small groups—but Gregory
brought it openly into the national discourse, and even though he left standup comedy in the
early 1970s to turn his attentions to several activist causes full-time, including civil rights and
health issues, he helped to underscore standup comedy’s rejuvenated populist appeal to a
public that was feeling increasingly confident in its own power to affect change and more
dubious of the authority wielded by its top political leadership, from whom it felt bitterly
Presidential imperiousness—which appeared increasingly illusory even as Lyndon
Johnson and Richard Nixon grasped at increased executive power—contributed to this
aloofness. As the schisms over Vietnam, civil rights, and other social inequities widened,
these divisions combined with Johnson’s and Nixon’s humorlessness to define a laughable
White House that inspired many Americans to create guerilla humor of their own and drove
others into the arms of the comedians and away from the president, who was once again
relegated exclusively to playing the foil at best, and, at worst, became the object of biting
satire. The comedians were more than happy to fill the vacuum created by the credibility
Presidents offered little resistance. Johnson was often praised for his sense of humor
during the 1964 presidential campaign; New York Times contributor Alvin Shuster claimed
that he had “forgotten more kneeslappers than most people [had] heard,” but his penchant for
simple anecdotes and one-liners, many of them off-color, left him ill-equipped either to
appreciate the attacks with public good humor or to retaliate with wit of his own.
Abraham Lincoln was able to able to mitigate criticism in large measure with an instinctive
and self-effacing use of humor, even during the darkest days of the Civil War, and Franklin
Roosevelt confronted deep adversity with a buoyant jocularity, Johnson could bring no such
396 Alvin Shuster quoted in Dudden, Pardon Us, Mr. President! , 28.
talent to bear to help alleviate the crises that he and the country faced. In the end, the very
strengths that defined “the Johnson treatment”—a combination of boorishness,
relentlessness, intimidation, and scheming—which had made him the master of both the
Senate and the inside deal, left him incapable of communicating outwardly with the
American people, humorously or otherwise. When humorists struck, whether from the pen
of columnists such as Art Buchwald and the cartoons of Jules Feiffer, from the theatre as
playwright Barbara Garson did with her scathing 1967 satire, MacBird!, about the political
combat between Johnson and the Kennedy brothers, or from the satiric sketches that began to
gain a tenuous foothold on network television thanks to the Smothers Brothers and others, he
could respond to the jokes and the laughs with only stunned silence or vindictiveness.
The paranoia, duplicity, and secretiveness that permeated virtually every aspect of
Richard Nixon’s personality and presidency opened the floodgates of presidential humor to
an extent that has been well-documented. Despite his personal inaccessibility, by the early
1970s Americans had identified Nixon with the executive branch for twenty years, as a vicepresident, presidential candidate, and president. It was increasingly easy to poke fun given
such familiarity, even for his political supporters. His physical appearance became the easy
stuff of caricature. He seemed to perfectly embody what Henri Bergson identified as
essentially comical: that which exhibits “peculiar inelasticity [or] conveys the impression of
pure mechanism, of automatism, of movement without life.” Such “imperfection,”
maintained Bergson, requires the immediate corrective of laughter.397 Americans became
increasingly happy to supply it, especially during his second term as seemingly everyone
except the president grappled with the tragicomedy of the Watergate scandal. As the battles
between the White House, Congress, and the media played out, and in the wake of Nixon’s
resignation in August 1974, the very basis of what Louis Rubin defined as “the Great
American Joke”—Americans’ longstanding and peculiarly creative device for reconciling the
discrepancy between American ideals and the human limitations that impede their
realization—now seemed to many to be appallingly empty and absurd; to many, the ideals
themselves were the joke.
Still, in 1968, even the humorless Nixon was forced to acknowledge the intersection
of political and entertainment culture, at least temporarily, and the powerful role that humor
397 Bergson, Laughter, 37.
played in bringing the two together. The earlier performances of presidents and comics
proved that laughs could win support and earn votes. That January, NBC opted to replace the
haggard action series, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., with a new variety show that combined the
ageless attractions of vaudeville and burlesque with broad-based satire, all infused with a
disarming zaniness that simultaneously ridiculed and reveled in the psychedelic pop culture
of the time. During its six seasons, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In popularized poking fun at
the president by diluting its small doses of political humor with large measures of slapstick,
sexuality, and lightning-fast pace. The show became an instant hit in the ratings and earned
critical praise as well. “Rowan and Martin,” wrote television critic Jack Gould in the New
York Times, “…may be the instrument for bringing TV into the mainstream of modern
concern.”398 For the debut of the show’s second season that September, both presidential
candidates were invited to make cameo appearances. Hubert Humphrey turned down the
offer, claiming it would be beneath his dignity, but Nixon agreed, attracted by the show’s
soaring ratings and further persuaded by head writer Paul Keyes, who was a Nixon supporter.
Nixon went to the show’s studios and worked diligently to record his one line, although it
reportedly took six takes before he could deliver it without sounding angry or offended. He
was paid $210, the standard rate for a cameo appearance according to the pay scale of the
American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). On September 16, 1968, a
stunned and surprisingly delighted television audience watched as Richard Nixon appeared
on their TV screens and incredulously exclaimed, “Sock it to me?”, a punch line that had
quickly become one of the show’s favorite running gags.399 It is widely agreed that Nixon’s
appearance is the single most famous moment in Laugh-In’s history. It was also a defining
moment in the commodification of political standup comedy, when the president and the
comic and the object of the joke became one and the same. The joke helped to make Nixon
more acceptable to the American electorate as it portrayed him as an everyman who could
both give and take in the world of humor. Two months later, Nixon defeated Humphrey by a
half-million votes, a victory that some attributed, in part, to his appearance on Rowan and
Martin’s Laugh-In. Nixon had helped himself—fleetingly, as it turned out—by turning
398 Jack Gould quoted in Erickson, "From Beautiful Downtown Burbank", 117. 399 Ibid., 167-8.
comedian. Unwittingly, he also helped to make presidential comedy increasingly ubiquitous
in American culture.
Laugh-In was part of a slowly growing list of options for viewers in search of
political satire on prime-time network television. Tom and Dick Smothers were clean-cut,
California college drop-outs who parlayed their folk music abilities and comic timing into a
successful career consisting of nightclub appearances and, after appearing on The Jack Paar
Show in 1961, a string of increasingly successful comedy albums. In February 1967, CBS
put them on the air as the latest offering opposite NBC’s ratings juggernaut, Bonanza, and, to
everyone’s amazement, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour vaulted to instant success. The
combination of offbeat comedy sketches, an eclectic assortment of guests, and the brothers’
youthful innocence attracted audiences of all ages, quickly garnered the duo a longer-term
contract, and, given the show’s apparently harmless content, earned them creative control
over the program. Inspired into political consciousness by the show’s collection of writers,
that included Rob Reiner and songwriter Mason Williams, Tom Smothers led the Sunday
evening show into uncharted territory that, while still relying on a wide variety of performers
and content, became increasingly confrontational, especially concerning the Vietnam War
and the question of presidential leadership. In the fall of 1967, the show booked folk music
icon Pete Seeger, who had been blacklisted from television since 1950 and whose latest song,
“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” made a barely-veiled reference to Lyndon Johnson as “the
big fool” who says to “push on” despite the hopeless situation facing his troops as they
wander into a swampy quagmire. CBS, fearing retribution from the White House and
sponsors alike, initially censored the most questionable final stanza, and while the network
ultimately relented and allowed the song to air unedited several months later, the cumulative
effect of almost weekly battles with CBS’s Program Practices Department resulted in the
show being canceled in early 1969 despite its consistent prominence among television’s
weekly top twenty programs and its ratings dominance in its time slot. The Smothers
Brothers Comedy Hour marks a significant transitional step in the final shift of political
comedy performance from the liminal fringes of American popular culture to center stage.
At the height of its popularity, a network executive told the Smothers Brothers, “We want
you to be controversial but at the same time we want everyone to agree with you.”400 Faced
400 Unidentified person quoted in Nachman, Seriously Funny, 452.
with the mixed signals of the show’s merrily subversive satire and its enormous popularity,
the mainstream media still was not sure—and still more than a little afraid—of what the
One of the regular features of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour that elated
audiences and confounded critics was the appearance of a diminutive, droopy-eyed
Norwegian-American comic and former Fuller Brush salesman named Pat Paulsen. His
regular “commentaries” on the issues of the day became a hilarious staple of the show, and in
1968 the Smothers Brothers approached him with the idea of running for president. “Why
not,” Paulsen reportedly replied, “I can’t dance—besides, the job has a good pension and I’ll
get a lot of money when I retire.”401 His rationale echoed Gracie Allen’s justification for a
similar comic run for president in 1940, but in contrast with Allen’s effort, Paulsen’s was
hopelessly intertwined with a show that championed political satire and iconoclasm in
general. Censors constantly tried to edit his monologues, but Tom Smothers instructed
Paulsen to fidget constantly, not only to make him appear shifty, but also to make it all but
impossible to cleanly omit an offending passage.402
Fans, meanwhile, were delighted by his
straight-faced, sincere, and almost apologetic campaign and flocked to his appearances
across the country. He hosted a Paulsen for President ninety-seven-cents-a-plate dinner at a
cafeteria on Rodeo Drive. Bumper stickers for Paulsen appeared nationwide beside ones for
Nixon, Humphrey, and George Wallace. Finally, in a twist of program scheduling that tested
the potency of presidential ambition versus comedic celebrity, Hubert Humphrey’s appeal to
voters the night before the election aired directly opposite a Pat Paulsen for President special.
In the end, Paulsen’s program drew more viewers than Humphrey’s.403 On Election Day, Pat
Paulsen earned more than one hundred thousand write-in votes for president, a healthy
percentage of Richard Nixon’s margin of victory.
Political comedy and presidential humor ultimately captured television and,
consequently, became permanently institutionalized in America. Its final acceptance, then
embrace as a bankable commodity, came thanks to the trials and tribulations of Lyndon
Johnson and Richard Nixon with the American people, those of Tom and Dick Smothers
with the network censors, and the efforts of a man who was arguably the most powerful
401 Pat Paulsen, Norwegian American [World Wide Web] ([cited 30 October 2004). 402 Hendra, Going Too Far, 217-8. 403 Ibid., 216-8.
celebrity in America: Johnny Carson, a comedian. An Iowa native endowed with an
instinctive comedic brilliance, rural forthrightness, and urban sophistication, Carson
succeeded Jack Paar as host of The Tonight Show in 1962 and by the time he reached the
height of his career during the mid 1970s, between ten and fifteen million people ended their
day as his audience and he accounted for seventeen percent of NBC’s total profit.404
Following Paar’s lead and that of Steve Allen, the show’s first host from 1954 to 1957, he
offered a showcase for up-and-coming comics in the years after Mort Sahl, Vaughn Meader,
and Bob Newhart debuted; Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers, and mimic Rich Little were
among his first beneficiaries. For his part, Carson walked the liminal threshold of political
humor gingerly. He always looked at himself as a simple entertainer, first and foremost, and,
as biographer Stephen Cox has observed, his routines were designed to be enlightening rather
than disturbing, to be simple not complex, befitting a program that people watched,
according to Carson, from between their toes.405 Still, Carson’s political material, including
ridicule of Johnson and subsequent presidents, escalated by the late 1960s and reinforced
during late-night television what the Smothers Brothers and Rowan and Martin were joking
about on prime time. Often Carson’s Tonight Show provided the platform for ridicule that, if
not quite suitable for Laugh-In at eight o’clock on Monday nights, was just what Americans
needed after the eleven o’clock news from Washington. Dan Rowan and Dick Martin
regaled Carson and his audience with this routine about President Nixon on the show’s tenth
anniversary program in 1972:
ROWAN: I don’t care what your politics are, you don’t call the
president of the United States Old Dick. He’s the president.
MARTIN: We’ve known him for twenty years.
ROWAN: I don’t care how long we’ve known him, you don’t
call the president Old Dick.
MARTIN: He was a regular on our show.
ROWAN: That doesn’t make any difference. When you talk to
him it’s Mr. President.
MARTIN: How about Mr. Dick?
ROWAN: Mr.—from the minute a man is elected to that office
he is called Mr. President. His most intimate friends, Mr.
President. Never anything else. From the day he’s elected till
404 Richard Severo and Bill Carter, "Johnny Carson, Low-Key King of Late-Night Tv, Dies at 79," New York
Times, 24 January 2005. 405 Stephen Cox, Here's Johnny!: Thirty Years of America's Favorite Late-Night Entertainer, rev. ed. (Nashville,
TN: Cumberland House, 2002), 185, 88, 86.
the day he dies. If Harry Truman takes a walk around the
block, “Good morning, Mr. President.” Same thing with
Johnson: “Good morning, Mr. President.”
MARTIN: Hmmm. Late at night, upstairs?
ROWAN: Well, I don’t know—I suppose Mrs. Nixon calls him
whatever she used to call him, I don’t know.
MARTIN: Tricky Dick!406
By 1974, The Tonight Show’s popularity had made it the biggest single money-maker
in television history and had made Carson one of the wealthiest entertainers in the country.
His success afforded him the leverage to dictate terms to NBC, which was desperate to
maintain the revenue stream that standup comedy was pouring into the network. That year,
Carson, feeling overworked and overexposed, demanded that NBC stop airing reruns of the
show on Saturday nights—relabeled The Best of Carson—in order to save the rebroadcasts
for weeknights that he chose to take off (after 1971, he was no longer seen on Monday nights
and a new contract in 1978 required that he only appear three night per week).407 Reluctant
to give the time slot back to local affiliates, NBC scurried to fill the ninety minutes with a
new variety-comedy show. It considered several options and numerous hosts, from singer
Linda Ronstadt to game-show host Bert Convy.408
Herbert Schlosser, NBC’s new president, rejected these possibilities and tapped
thirty-year-old writer Lorne Michaels to be executive producer of a show tentatively called
NBC’s Saturday Night. Michaels had earned a name for himself by producing comedy
specials and films in his native Canada and was already well-known to NBC as one of the
funniest offbeat writers for Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. During the next several months,
Michaels assembled a collection of writers and performers from his days on Laugh-In and his
relationships with the creators of the acidly satiric magazine, The National Lampoon, as well
as from his connections with pioneering improvisational comedy groups such as Chicago’s
Second City and San Francisco’s equivalent, the Committee, to create Saturday Night Live.
The show debuted on October 11, 1975 and quickly became a sensation for its ability to
406 Museum of Television and Radio, Stand-up Comedians on Television (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996),
407 Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable Tv Shows, 1946-
Present, 7th rev. ed. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999), 1038, Tom Shales and James A. Miller, Live from
New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live (Boston: Little, Brown, 2002), 3-4. 408 Shales and Miller, Live from New York, 4.
deliver what millions of Americans were fully prepared to buy in addition to good oldfashioned wit and physical slapstick: political humor and, particularly, presidential satire.
Saturday Night Live single-handedly synchronized the elements that were formative
to what I have called “the dance of the comedians” as it evolved during the twentieth century.
The show’s sketches and the standup routines of guest hosts such as George Carlin, Lily
Tomlin, Dick Cavett, and Richard Pryor during the first season recalled the onstage antics of
Will Rogers in the Follies, Mort Sahl at the hungry i, and the Smothers Brothers on CBS.
The hilarious struggles of the Coneheads to comprehend human society conjured up
memories of the improvisational genius of the Compass theatre. The fresh topicality that
Rogers first brought to comedy performance with his declaration “All I know is just what I
read in the papers” and which Mort Sahl refashioned by working from a rolled-up daily
newspaper during the 1950s, found its place with “Weekend Update,” which lampooned the
foibles of newsmakers from Hollywood to Washington. Presidential impersonation, which
Rogers had initiated at Calvin Coolidge’s expense in 1928, received special prominence from
the start when Chevy Chase mimicked Gerald Ford by simply falling down, stapling himself
to his desk, or otherwise imitating the president’s frequent verbal or physical stumbles. In
September 1976, the show inaugurated what would come to be recognized as its hallmark
contribution to political pop culture—the mock presidential debate. With Ford and
Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter locked in a tight race and scheduled to debate each other
for the first time only five days later, Chase took to the podium as Ford (who was an avid
football fan and star player at the University of Michigan) and Dan Aykroyd as Carter for
what would be a landmark performance:
LILY TOMLIN AS MODERATOR RUTH CLUSEN: Now, at
the request of President Ford, Mr. Tommie Bell, the senior
linesman of the National Football League, will toss the coin to
determine who will be asked the first question.
CHEVY CHASE AS GERALD FORD: I’ll take the side with
the head on it.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR AS TOMMIE BELL: Heads it is.
The president will receive….
JANE CURTIN AS JOURNALIST LIZ MONTGOMERY:
Mr. President, Governor Carter has accused you of hiding in
the White House instead of meeting the people. How do you
answer that charge?
CHASE AS FORD: I was not hiding. I was simply lost for a
little while. The Secret Service found me and now everything
is just fine….
JOHN BELUSHI AS JOURNALIST TOM BURKE: Governor
Carter,…your son Chip has admitted to smoking
marijuana….What is your attitude on the decriminalization of
DAN AYKROYD AS JIMMY CARTER: Mr. Burke, as much
as I love my son Chip, if I were to come upon him smoking
marijuana, I would have him arrested….
TOMLIN AS CLUSEN: Mr. President, rebuttal?
CHASE AS FORD: No, thank you. I’ve just had dinner.409
The live audience—both in NBC’s Studio 8H and in front of televisions at parties
nationwide—howled as the president of the United States was laid low and his opponent
portrayed as only marginally less incompetent. Letters of protest poured into NBC
condemning the mocking of the president (and virtually all other aspects of the show), but
they were overwhelmed by ratings that quickly established Saturday Night Live as one of the
nation’s most-watched programs. By the end of the 1976 season it was the network’s second
most profitable show, only behind The Tonight Show.
410 Viewers flocked to it and
advertisers noticed. Ridiculing authority without mercy—whether it was big business,
religion, or the president—was big business itself, and sponsors rushed to join in the dance.
In the spring of 1976, Lorne Michaels took a small television crew to the White
House to film Gerald Ford’s pre-recorded performance on Saturday Night Live. Ron Nessen,
Ford’s press secretary, was scheduled to guest host the program on April 17, and the
president agreed to record the trademark opener, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night,”
as well as the sentence, “I’m Gerald Ford and you’re not,” a take-off on what had quickly
become Chevy Chase’s signature line. In the Oval Office, Michaels filmed two or three
takes to try to loosen up his wooden performer, without success. In an attempt to ease the
tension, he approached the president and joked about Ford’s impending network debut as a
comic: “Mr. President, if this works out, who knows where it will lead?” As Michaels later
recalled, the humor was completely lost on Ford.411
409 Michael Cader, Saturday Night Live: The First Twenty Years (Boston: Cader Books, 1994), 199. 410 Shales and Miller, Live from New York, 173. 411 Ibid., 75-6.
Neither Ford nor Michaels recognized it at the time, but the president-showman had
already arrived. Ford’s appearance on Saturday Night Live was simply the latest “gig” for
the twentieth century presidency, albeit arguably the most high-profile one; he would not
have been booked if the show’s producers were not convinced that their viewers would “buy
his act.” By 1976, Ford was merely following the steps that had been choreographed for him
by his fellow performers in the White House, on stage, and in the audience. The
opportunities and necessities that led Ford to learn his brief routine and perform it in the Oval
Office for the nation’s entertainment pleasure, and on the country’s most popular showcase
for comedy and political satire, had their genesis with earlier presidents and showmen who,
in league with the chuckling masses in the crowd, discovered great power in both the joke
and the explosive surge of laughter that followed in its wake. For Ford and his advisors,
presidential humor—displayed publicly and intended for mass consumption—was a political
tactic to be played to the hilt in order to disarm critics, underscore the lighthearted bond of
common humanity he shared with his fellow citizens, and, above all, to earn votes in an
election year. Presidents from Benjamin Harrison to Richard Nixon had taught him—
through acts of omission as well as commission—the potential payoff of going for laughs as
well as the possible pitfalls.
Ford also ran the risk of being victimized by the occupational hazards of the
showman-president. In the complex, multi-faceted transaction of the joke, Ford was not only
the comic delivering the gag; as president he was also on the receiving end of the punch line,
the object of the joke at whom the audience laughed. In the wake of assassination, war,
scandal, and haplessness, the president found Americans to be a tough crowd. Still, the show
would go on, with or without him. The deference of distance was no longer possible. The
funny men, events, and emerging media of the earlier twentieth century had permanently
aligned political and popular culture. As members of meritocracies increasingly synonymous
in the public mind, neither the president nor the standup comedian could afford to ignore the
career-shaping power of humor that might be translated into political support or popular
adulation. Later presidents would fashion this power to their own personal style. Some,
including Bill Clinton but most notably Ronald Reagan, would actively embrace such
performance personally and exploit it to great effectiveness, both to the delight of the general
public and the dismay of their opponents. Others, such as Gerald Ford and George H. W.
Bush, would stumble over their own lines but publicly associate themselves with the
comedians, as Bush did when he invited impersonator and Saturday Night Live regular Dana
Carvey to the White House in 1992. Some would even use surrogates, such as George W.
Bush’s use of his wife Laura in 2005 to stand up in his place at the White House
Correspondents’ Association dinner. Today, presidents might script the performance in any
number of ways, but they can only refuse to go on at their peril.
Usually cast in the role of audience, everyday Americans developed a sense of humor
and a sense of themselves as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries played out. Citizens
increasingly recognized that the comedian’s jokes offered an effective and merrily
mischievous way to assert their individual sovereignty while in laughing community with
others. Mirth at the expense of political leaders served to topple these elites from their
ceremonial pedestals as it elevated the common American. Specifically, laughter endowed
the American everyman and everywoman with a comedic yet potent form of political and
cultural suffrage, where each laugh could be a vote of confidence or a cackle of rejection.
Over time, with shifting exigencies, the proliferation of media outlets for experiencing such
humor, and at the instigation of comics and presidents, the value of such laughter began to
appreciate in the popular entertainment culture. Citizen consumers became increasingly
willing to purchase what Sigmund Freud called “the pleasure of the joke” with expenditures
of time and cold hard cash, and enterprising showmen and their backers adapted quickly to
fill the demand.412 By the 1930s, thanks largely to the mastery of Will Rogers but with the
complicity and equally significant contributions of Franklin Roosevelt, standup comedy at
the expense of the president was a hot commodity and, although the comedy Rogers and
Roosevelt produced proved to be singular to their unique lives and times, its marketability
was clearly demonstrated. During the next three decades, presidential parody, ridicule, and
satire were continually reformulated and repackaged to meet the demands of new audiences,
and then found new means of distribution through the new media of the day. At least as
much as the citizen, the consumer was sovereign by the mid 1970s. Political standup
comedy was made commercially legitimate—even if it was not always culturally
sanctioned—by the millions of Americans eager to participate in the marketplace of such
humor and, with the deregulation of the communications industry and the rise of cable
412 Sigmund Freud, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 143.
television during the 1980s, they had full access to the wares that the beneficiaries of Will
Rogers, Mort Sahl, Vaughn Meader, Dick Gregory, the Smothers Brothers, and others had
demonstrated. In such a buyer’s market, the economic cachet of laughing at the president
now at least rivals and often exceeds the political value. Crises such as terrorist attacks or
war may depress demand—as standup comedians discovered during the 1940s and early
1950s, and as comic Bill Maher learned in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001
when ABC canceled his late-night program, Politically Incorrect—but the humorists and
their audiences have proved resilient in their ability to recalibrate and redefine their
rebellious laughter as required. Presidential humor—as practiced by Maher, Jon Stewart,
Saturday Night Live’s Tina Fey, or impersonator Darrell Hammond—remains part playful
insurgency, part show business spectacle. It has also become an American ritual integral to
both popular and political culture.
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