When it comes to comedy and politicians, each ensuing election seems to make the correlation between the two ever more important. We’ve seen about 45 years worth of politicians who’ve gone on TV to do comedy in order to make their personas look more appealing to their constituents. But how many have them ultimately forced embarrassments rather than truly convincing people they had a masterful sense of comedy timing? In some cases, the comedy we saw from those politicians might have been funny in the past, and now seem overly calculated.
Now with Chris Christie doing a comedy dance routine with Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show” recently, how far will politicians go in comedy in order to show them fitting in with normal society? The best way to predict that is to look at the evolution of politicians doing comedy on TV and see how they fit into the evolution of comedy itself.
From Nixon to Christie in TV Comedy
The late 1960s were revolutionary in a lot of ways, but you have to wonder if President Nixon appearing on “Laugh-In” in 1969 was his own idea or from a political advisor. When Nixon appeared on the show in a short blackout uttering “Sock it to me?”, it changed the whole perspective on politicians being comedians on television. Prior to Nixon, you never saw a President exhibit comedy on TV or radio, which only created a persona with the public that the role of President was far above doing hilarious comedy.
You have to imagine what the public would have thought had someone like Franklin Delano Roosevelt appeared on a comedy radio show in the 1930s or ’40s. Not that he needed it for popularity, though you have to imagine him doing one comedy bit on radio would have endeared even more to the public, plus perhaps Republicans. The same goes for Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, and Johnson in the early TV era.
JFK would have likely been fantastic in a comedy sketch on a comedy/variety show in the early 1960s. Nobody thought to do things like that in those days, though, and perhaps the public would have thought of it as debasing the role of the Presidency. It was probably fortunate Nixon only did one quick line on “Laugh-In” since he was never proven to be Mr. Comedy publicly. According to some who knew him personally, however, they say he was very funny privately and seemed guarded when showing it in public.
That was likely always a problem until more recent years when comedy became nearly intertwined with the political world. Only Ronald Reagan managed to evolve this based on his past experience in Hollywood and development of a sharp wit. Some of his comedy one-liners at various events during his Presidency still hold up, even if they seem tame compared to what’s expected in comedy from 21st century politicians.
McCain’s “SNL” Appearance and Shorter Bursts of Comedy
Even if some probably still don’t find Sen. John McCain all that hilarious, his turn hosting “Saturday Night Live” was a game-changer when it comes to politicians getting a little more daring with comedy. Some of the sketches he was in were incredibly bold for a sitting senator and Presidential prospect. While some could argue that doing comedy on “SNL” can make a politician look far less sincere, you have to wonder if shorter form comedy ultimately works better.
Yes, consider that Barack Obama appeared on “SNL” in just a quick cameo compared to hosting the entire show as McCain did. There’s something to be said about doing one-minute comedy cameos to make enough impact that lasts a lifetime. Did Chris Christie’s dance routine with Jimmy Fallon fall under that category, or did it go on a bit too long to a point of embarrassment to his future constituents?
It probably helped him look even more normal, especially to future voters dealing with weight issues themselves. This appearance might have set up an opportunity for more politicians to do more outrageous comedy in order to capture the attention of skeptical people, perhaps to deflect from an issue. In the Internet era when dozens of political vices can easily get out in the open, perhaps more politicians will be wiling to do more daring and more absurd comedy in order to show that absurdity and politics have no fine line.