The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Watergate scandal ushered in a golden age of comedy

Comedian Mark Russell wearing headphones at the Watergate complex. (CQ Archive/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

“Did you hear about the new Watergate watch? Both hands always point to Nixon.”

The Watergate scandal began 50 years ago this month, and so did a golden age of political humor. The jokes started flying soon after five burglars were caught bugging the phones at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office building during the 1972 presidential race between Republican President Richard M. Nixon and Democratic Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota.

“McGovern knew something suspicious was going on when he picked up a grapefruit and got a dial tone,” quipped Mark Russell, the piano-playing comedian at Washington’s Shoreham Hotel.

The humor of Watergate contrasts with the seriousness of the current national focus on the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, by supporters of President Donald Trump, which resulted in the deaths of five people. The attack is under investigation by the Justice Department and a House select committee, whose highly anticipated hearings, which began last week, have been compared to the Watergate hearings.

But the Watergate scandal had overtones of a Keystone Kops comedy. It involved what the Nixon White House called a “third rate” burglary, “inoperative statements,” a political coverup and secret presidential recordings that provided plenty of fodder for political satire. “For comedians, Watergate was the gift that kept on giving,” said Russell in an email.

The Watergate break-in took place on June 17, 1972. Two days later, young Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein disclosed that some of the burglars worked for Nixon’s Committee for Re-Election of the President, known to Nixon critics as CREEP. From then on, you could follow the humor. On June 23, a Post cartoon by Herbert Block, known as Herblock, showed footprints representing the “bugging case” in front of the White House. A detective with a magnifying glass was saying, “Strange—they all seem to have some connection with this place.”

Before Jan. 6 hearings, most-watched political TV was Watergate probe

The White House’s coverup began to unravel after Nixon won reelection. By mid-1973, comedian David Frye was playing to packed nightclub audiences, impersonating the president as he wallowed in Watergate. “My fellow Americans. There is a bright side to Watergate,” said Frye as Nixon. “My administration has taken crime out of the streets and put it in the White House, where I can keep an eye on it.”

Frye’s Nixon went on: “The odds are 100 to 1 that I’ll be impeached, 50 to 1 that I’ll resign. That is not the reason that I am today signing a Prison Reform Bill. There will be a two-bedroom suite for anyone who once held the nation’s highest office.”

At least five Watergate comedy record albums became the hottest-selling political comedy albums since Vaughn Meader made fun of President John F. Kennedy on his album “The First Family” in 1962. On “The Watergate Comedy Hour,” a compilation of comic skits, a Nixon impersonator began a prayer, “My fellow God.”

Gerald Gardner’s “The Watergate Follies” became a best-selling book, with captioned photos such as one showing Nixon talking to reporters with a speech bubble reading, “Are you going to believe me or the facts?” “The Watergate Cookbook” featured recipes such as Watergate Vichyssoise — to start, “Take a bunch of leaks…” There was even a board game called “The Watergate Game.” The object was “to stay out of jail.”

After the Senate Watergate Committee uncovered the existence of secret White House tapes, there was found to be an 18½-minute gap in a recording of Nixon talking three days after the break-in. All that could be heard was a humming sound. Humor columnist Art Buchwald wrote that the sound actually was the president humming. Nixon had kept this a secret, The Washington Post columnist explained, because “he doesn’t want to go down in history as the first American President who was known as a nervous hummer.”

“Nixon was my Camelot,” Buchwald said later. “Every day was something new. I’d wake up in the morning, see something in the paper like the 18-minute tape gap and write my column so quickly that I’d be on the tennis court by 10 o’clock.” The columnist proposed that June 17 be declared national Watergate Day to mark the break-in: “Americans would memorialize this historic event by tapping telephones, spying on their neighbors, using aliases and making inoperative statements.”

Even late-night TV comedy king Johnny Carson, who usually avoided politics, began telling Watergate jokes after the White House claimed Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods had accidentally erased part of the tape. “Let me put it this way,” Carson said. “Would you believe Moses if he had come down with the Eight Commandments?”

How Martha Mitchell’s firing of a bodyguard spurred Watergate scandal

TV talk-show host Dick Cavett taped one of his shows from the Senate Watergate Committee hearing room, where he interviewed committee members. “While sitting in that witness chair, I feel guilty,” Cavett told co-chairman Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), who replied, “You’re the first one.” Nixon apparently was a viewer of Cavett’s shows. On the White House tapes, the president is heard asking his staff about Cavett: “Is there any way we can screw him?”

As transcripts of the tapes further incriminated Nixon in 1974, a Herblock cartoon showed the president hanging in midair, clinging to two torn pieces of a reel-to-reel tape with the words, “I am not a crook.” In late July, the Supreme Court ordered that the tapes be turned over to the Watergate special counsel.

That month, the House Judiciary Committee voted for articles of impeachment charging Nixon with obstruction of justice. Bumper stickers appeared reading, “Honk if you think he’s guilty.” One political button declared “Jail to the Chief.” A joke made the rounds: “The Rev. Billy Graham’s Bible readings at the White House have gone from Revelations to Exodus.”

On Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon became the only president ever to resign from office and turned the presidency over to Vice President Gerald Ford. A restaurant in suburban Detroit, the New York Times reported, began promoting a “Watergate Special” pizza: “First you order a Richard Nixon. Then you turn on the heat and get a Jerry Ford.”

After Nixon left, the Watergate spigot of humor abruptly shut off. “When Watergate was over,” said Russell, the pianist-comedian, “I had to go back to writing my own material.”