The Political Scene

Stooping To Conquer

Why candidates need to make fun of themselves.

by Elizabeth Kolbert April 19, 2004

Three days after placing third in the Iowa caucuses and delivering the much replayed “scream,” Howard Dean made a taped appearance on the “Late Show with David Letterman.” His task was to deliver the Top Ten list of “ways I, Howard Dean, can turn things around”:

10. Switch to decaf.
9. Unveil new slogan: “Vote for Dean and get one dollar off your next purchase at Blimpie.”
8. Marry Rachel on the final episode of “Friends.”
7. Don’t change a thing—it’s going great.
6. Show a little more skin.
5. Go on “American Idol” and give ’em a taste of these pipes.
4. Start working out and speaking with Austrian accent.
3. I can’t give specifics yet, but it involves Ted Danson.
2. Fire the staffer who suggested we do this lousy Top Ten List instead of actually campaigning.
1. Oh, I don’t know—maybe fewer crazy, red-faced rants.

Dean followed up the “Letterman” appearance with an interview with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” When the segment aired, the day before the New Hampshire primary, it consisted mostly of voice-overs of the two men’s “thoughts.” At one point, Dean was asked his position on gay marriage. As he held forth, his answer was drowned out by Stewart’s interior monologue: “Mrs. Jon Dean . . . Mr. Howard Stewart . . . Howard and Jon Dean . . . Dr. and Mr. Jon Dean-Stewart.”

Dean’s performances on late-night television in no way distinguished him from his rivals. While stumping in Iowa, Representative Dick Gephardt, of Missouri, also showed up on “Letterman,” in his case to enumerate the ten “signs you’ve been on the campaign trail too long.” (No. 6: “You ask yourself, ‘What would Schwarzenegger do?’ ” No. 2: “You agree to appear on a lame late-night talk show.”) Right before officially entering the Presidential race, last September, Senator John Edwards, of North Carolina, “announced” his candidacy on “The Daily Show.” And, the day after the Missouri primary, Edwards duly recited his list of ten “things never before said by a Presidential candidate.” (No. 7: “I’d give you my plan for economic recovery if I wasn’t rip-stinkin’ drunk.”)

Making fun of politicians is a pastime practically as old as politics itself. Before the Greeks got around to inventing romantic comedy, they amused themselves by lampooning their leaders; in Aristophanes’ “The Knights,” for instance, the Athenian despot Cleon is replaced in office by a sausage seller. (Standard garb for actors in the days of “old comedy” was a padded suit and a large red leather phallus.) The Romans, too, loved a witty put-down, like this one, aimed at Caesar and reported by Dio Cassius: “If you behave well, you will be punished; if you behave badly, you will be king.”

What sets contemporary political humor apart is its curious—one is tempted to say unprecedented—configuration. In the new comic order, the most devastating joke is circulated not by an irreverent observer or a sly opponent but by the target himself, who appears on national television solely in order to deliver it. There seem to be two ways to look at this trend: as a sign of how seriously we now take light entertainment or as an indication of how lightly we have come to regard politics. Either way, it’s an unsettling development. Perhaps Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, put it best when he was given a better time slot than Senator John Kerry, of Massachusetts, recently on the “Tonight Show.”

“John Kerry, a war veteran, has to follow a freaking dog puppet!” he shrieked. “What’s going on in America?”

Not long ago, I went to the Museum of Television and Radio, on West Fifty-second Street, to see episode No. 15 of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” When the episode originally aired, on September 16, 1968, “Laugh-In” was just beginning its first full season—it had débuted eight months earlier, as a mid-season replacement—but was about to become the No. 1 show on television. The program begins with all the usual “Laugh-In” mayhem. “It must be ‘Sock it to me’ time,” a youthful Goldie Hawn announces, before hitting herself over the head with a plastic mallet. The mayor of Burbank gets pelted with Ping-Pong balls; Joanne Worley is doused with water; Ruth Buzzi is crushed by a stage set; and Judy Carne is pelted, doused, crushed, and then sprayed by a skunk. Still wet, she answers a phone, and on the other end (ostensibly) is Governor Nelson Rockefeller. “Oh, no, I don’t think we could get Mr. Nixon to stand still for a ‘Sock it to me,’ ” she chirps, at which point the show cuts away to Richard Nixon.

Nixon’s appearance on “Laugh-In” lasts four seconds. At first, he is looking stage right; then he turns toward the camera. He widens his eyes in what seems to be an effort at feigned surprise but comes off looking more like mock dismay. “Sock it to me?” he asks, drawing out the “me?” in a way that suggests he has perhaps never heard the line before.

Episode No. 15 was broadcast at the height of Nixon’s (ultimately successful) campaign against Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, and was an immediate sensation. George Schlatter, the creator of “Laugh-In,” now runs a television production company in Los Angeles. He told me that Nixon had been extremely reluctant to be on the show; although the producers had repeatedly entreated him to appear, his campaign aides had even more insistently urged him not to. Eventually, the race brought Nixon out to Los Angeles. He gave a press conference, and Schlatter and one of “Laugh-In” ’s writers, Paul Keyes, who happened to be a close friend of the former Vice-President’s, went over to watch it, bringing a TV camera with them.

“Stooping To Conquer” continues
10 04, 2008
Spots by Benoît Jacques

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