In the 2006 film Man of the Year, Robin Williams plays the comedic host of a political talk show (ala Jon Stewart) who runs for President of the US as an independent candidate and gets just enough votes to win.
Why not? Americans can always use the laughter that a good comedian can provide. Besides, it would be difficult for a foreign dignitary to be argumentative during a UN General Assembly meeting if the POTUS was making him laugh so hard that milk was spurting out of his nose.
President Obama will soon be vacating the White House and we will be losing the first president that was the funniest person at any White House Correspondents Dinner. He has comic timing that Jack Benny would have admired. And he certainly has learned how to deal with hecklers: “Is this an audience or a Congressional session?”
In the 1940 presidential election, Franklin Roosevelt, in addition to Wendell Willkie, had a comedic challenger: comedienne Gracie Allen.
Gracie and her husband, George Burns, were one of the most successful comedy teams on radio. Gracie was an intelligent woman who excelled at playing dumb with fractured logic and word play. As a publicity stunt for the Burns and Allen Show, she announced on their radio program in March of 1940 that she was going to run for the presidency as the candidate of a new third party, the “Surprise Party.”
When Gracie entered the race she said that she’d been laughing at presidential candidates for years and so decided she should run herself.
As part of the campaign, Allen wrote a short book, “How to Become President” in which she had speech templates such as: “How glorious it is to be here among my friends, for you are my friends, at least until the election, in this fair city of ______, the garden spot of the great ______ (APPLAUSE)
It seems that many modern politicians have taken a page from Gracie’s book. She offered useful advice such as: “If your opponent looks too honest call him a visionary. And if he smarter than you, you can work wonders with such things as ‘crafty’ and ‘clever.’
Gracie was the only candidate to encourage the American people to take pride in our national debt, boasting that “it’s the biggest in the world.”
Although it had been conceived as a radio gimmick, her campaign quickly took on a life of its own. The Union Pacific Railroad, which was assisting in the annual celebration of Golden Spikes Day in Omaha, Nebraska that May, offered to provide a campaign train for Gracie so she could make a whistle-stop tour, and Omaha volunteered to host her nominating convention.
Shortly after, she was invited by Eleanor Roosevelt to appear at the Women’s National Press Club in Washington D.C. as guest of honor, and she used the occasion to announce the Surprise Party convention.
Between Hollywood and Omaha the Allen campaign train made more than thirty stops, including Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and Denver.
Thousands of enthusiastic fans showed up at the nominating convention at Creighton University on May 17 to unanimously nominate Gracie Allen for president of the United States. She told them she didn’t want a vice-presidential running mate because she didn’t want any vice on the ticket.
Gracie even received the endorsement of Harvard University, which was quite a coup considering that Roosevelt was an alumnus of the school.
In addition to receiving several thousand write-in votes on Election Day, Gracie Allen did win an election that year. The citizens of Menominee, Michigan elected her mayor, although she had to decline the post because she was a non-resident..
Before there was Colbert or Stewart, there was Pat Paulsen. Paulsen, the doleful-looking comedian who ran several tongue-in-cheek races for the Presidency, was a regular on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour starting in 1967. On the show , he delivered double-talk editorials on issues of the day which prompted the Smothers Brothers to suggest that he launch a satirical presidential campaign in 1968. He subsequently became a household name by announcing his candidacy under the Straight Talking American Government (STAG) Party ticket.
The joke took on a life of its own, as he campaigned in one election after another, with commentary such as: “All the problems we face in the United States today can be traced to an unenlightened immigration policy on the part of the American Indian.”
Paulsen’s campaigns were rooted in comedy, although never lacking serious commentary. He used the theoretical campaigns to attack the double-talk of political candidates. Responding to questions on social issues he responded: “To get to the meat of the matter, I will come right to the point, and take note of the fact that the heart of the issue in the final analysis escapes me.”
Although he shared his thoughts with a dry, deadpan delivery, his observations were insightful. During the 1972 campaign he said: ”The fault lies not with the individual but with the system, and that system is Richard Nixon.”
Commenting on Bob Dole’s proposal to cut taxes by 15 percent, he said: ”I think we should just tip the Government if it does a good job. Fifteen percent is the standard tip, isn’t it? If they don’t do a good job, give them less.”
In 1992 he beat out Ross Perot to come in second to George Bush in the North Dakota Republican Primary. In that year’s primaries he received a total of 10,984 votes.
In the 1996 New Hampshire primary Paulsen received 1,007 votes, finishing second to President Clinton’s 77,797 and beating out all 19 of the other Democratic fringe candidates.
Despite the fame it brought him, he later had second thoughts about his 1968 campaign because the election was so extremely close. Although he ran the campaign as a jest, he actually ended up with about one percent of the vote. He regretted it because the votes acquired by him might have otherwise gone to Hubert Humphrey.”
Paulsen received the International Platform Association’s Mark Twain Award for his outstanding contributions to topical humor. A fitting honor, as the author, whose humor took many a scathing stab at government, once noted that political morals “are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.”