A “joke” on the campaign trail rarely gets the response that a politician/amateur comedian might hope for. Just ask Herman Cain about his views on electrified fences. For politicians, most of the time the joke is on them.
This weekend offers a good reminder of that rule. On Sunday, comedian Will Ferrellwill receive the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Ferrell is beloved for his many characters, including newsman Ron Burgundy and Craig the Spartan Cheerleader. But his George W. Bush impression is one of his most memorable schticks. Ferrell debuted it in 2000 on “Saturday Night Live,” including giving a damning performance in a debate with a fictional Al Gore. Portraying the presidential candidate as arrogant, dim-witted and lexically challenged, Ferrell-as-Bush is asked to sum up his campaign in one word. He responds: “Strategery.” The caricature didn’t cost Bush any elections, but it did evoke the power of humor as a way to make sense of our political leaders.
Early presidential humor revolved around editorial cartoons in newspapers, with local cartoonists using caricature and metaphors that were simple to decipher (especially for immigrants and the illiterate), yet also critical — and funny. In the broadcasting era, comedians drew from the vaudeville style crafted by the likes of Milton Berle and translated it into one-liners and physical humor that often made politicians into bumbling oafs.
In recent years, the personal and political failures of Bill Clinton and Bush offered comedians a gold mine of material. Satirists such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have shown how comedy can be an ideal way to address political lies and power grabs.
Today, you don’t need a television show to make fun of the president. Mocking memes multiply online, and anyone can use the Internet and social media to craft their own critiques.
Here are some highlights in the evolution of the president as punch line in chief.
From Elkanah Tisdale’s rendering of the term “Gerry-mander” in a 19th-century Boston Gazette cartoon to Ted Rall’s unflinching indictments of President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, editorial cartoonists have often ridiculed political power. Working in one or two frames, they have shown that reducing an issue or event to its core can offer clarity while challenging readers’ apathy. It may not always be belly-laugh funny, but sarcasm and scorn are central to mocking the president while making a point. The Watergate scandal, for instance, offered Washington Post cartoonist Herb Block a reservoir of material for exploring the mind and misdeeds of President Richard Nixon.
For the past half-century, presidents have been reliable fodder for the jokes of stand-up comedians and television performers. Mort Sahl was famous for his ribbing of John F. Kennedy, but it was Bob Hope who epitomized the good-natured approach to presidential humor in post-war media culture.
A typical Hope barb about LBJ: “Lyndon’s a born politician — when he was born, the doctor slapped him, and Lyndon handed him a cigar.”
One-liners — whether spot-on or groan-inducing — are the mainstay of late-night talk show monologues. For decades, “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson was the standard-bearer, using political humor but never offering comedy that might put off his mass audience. Late-night comedians make the president a punching bag five nights a week; even if Carson wasn’t as biting as today’s comics, his daily jokes did affect popular perceptions of several presidents.
Chevy Chase’s impersonation of President Gerald Ford on “Saturday Night Live” ushered in sketch comedy as a high-profile TV version of political caricature. Chase didn’t attempt to look or sound like Ford, but nonetheless he was successful in casting him as a bumbling fool — an impression that most commentators, including Ford himself, suggest hurt the president at the polls.
“SNL” continued to caricature presidents, including Dan Aykroyd’s brooding and paranoid Nixon and his smarter-than-thou Jimmy Carter, Dana Carvey’s patrician George H.W. Bush, and Darrell Hammond’s voracious Bill Clinton. Few of these surface-level characters addressed presidential policy decisions, instead focusing largely on the psychological or idiosyncratic. After leaving the show, though, Ferrell kept up his Bush impression. In his Broadway show and at other performances, his portrayals dug deeper into Bush’s policy choices on issues such as climate change.
At the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 2006, Stephen Colbert, in character as his right-wing alter ego, delivered an infamous drubbing of Bush as the president sat a few feet away. Bush, noticeably uncomfortable, looked on as Colbert indicted an entire political culture, one in which belief trumps facts, ideology supersedes thinking and Washington journalists are mere stenographers to power.
As Bush exited public life, many commentators worried that the new president’s tendency toward self-control would leave the comedy field lacking material. But it hasn’t been a problem. Barack Obama is just as prime a target as previous presidents. And his time in office has overlapped with the era of do-it-yourself presidential comedy by way of memes, Photoshop, Facebook and YouTube parodies. The humor can be fun and lighthearted, or vicious and racist (Google with caution). As citizen engagement with political humor has become more widespread, mocking our leaders is now democratic.
Jeffrey P. Jones is the author of “Entertaining Politics: Satiric Television and Political Engagement,” and director of the Institute of Humanities at Old Dominion University.