The Dance of the Comedians

The Dance of the Comedians: The People, the President, and the Performance of Political Standup Comedy in America

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Dance of the Comedians
    Book Description:

    Why did Barack Obama court Jon Stewart and trade jokes with Stephen Colbert during the campaign of 2008? Why did Sarah Palin forgo the opportunity to earn votes on the Sunday morning political talk shows but embrace the chance to get laughs on Saturday Night Live? The Dance of the Comedians examines the history behind these questions—the merry, mocking, and highly contested anarchies of standup political comedy that have locked humorists, presidents, and their fellow Americans in an improvisational threeway “dance” since the early years of the American republic. Peter M. Robinson shows how the performance of political humor developed as a celebration of democracy and an expression of political power, protest, and commercial profit. He places special significance on the middle half of the twentieth century, when presidents and comedians alike—from Calvin Coolidge to Ronald Reagan, from Will Rogers to Saturday Night Live’s “Not Ready for Prime Time Players”—developed modern understandings of the power of laughter to affect popular opinion and political agendas, only to find the American audience increasingly willing and able to get in on the act. These years put the longstanding traditions of presidential deference profoundly in play as all three parties to American political humor—the people, the presidents, and the comedy professionals—negotiated their way between reverence for the office of the presidency and ridicule of its occupants. Although the focus is on humor, The Dance of the Comedians illuminates the process by which Americans have come to recognize that the performance of political comedy has serious and profound consequences for those on all sides of the punch line.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-037-6
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. PROLOGUE: “I’m not kidding”
    (pp. 1-14)

    Without warning to her audience, and with even her husband uncertain of exactly what was coming, first lady Laura Bush took the stage and stole the show at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on April 30, 2005. In a performance widely applauded by supporters and critics on both sides of the culture wars, Mrs. Bush made open fun of the policies, the foibles, and, indirectly, even the sexual performance of the president of the United States. Just as George W. Bush was approaching the podium as entertainer in chief, a role increasingly prescribed for the president by the...

  6. 1 An American Company of Comedians
    (pp. 15-36)

    Not long after the election of 1860 Artemus Ward paid a visit to Abraham Lincoln at his home in Springfield, Illinois. The courtesy call by America’s favorite humorist on the “President eleck of the United States” was bedlam from the outset, and the zany confusion for readers was hilariously compounded by the frayed homespun dialect that Ward used to retell it:

    I found the old feller in his parler, surrounded by a perfeck swarm of orfice seekers. . . .

    “Mr. Ward, [said Lincoln,] sit down. I am glad to see you, Sir.”

    “Repose in Abraham’s Buzzum!” sed one of...

  7. 2 Dance Partners
    (pp. 37-56)

    If Charles Browne was the first meteor of standup comedy to appear over the American landscape, Samuel Clemens was the comet. While Browne’s fame as Artemus Ward was as brilliant as it was short-lived, Clemens’s as Mark Twain burned on into the twentieth century, and his humor came to be celebrated by the nation and much of the world as quintessentially American. Author and critic William Dean Howells once described Charles Browne as “the humorist who first gave the world a taste of the humor that characterizes the whole American people,” while for one of his biographers, Browne’s comedy defined...

  8. 3 A Presidential Crinoline
    (pp. 57-98)

    Will rogers was unique. At first the arrival in 1904 of the funny, disarming, and oddly enchanting cowboy, whose show business debut coincided with the cresting popularity of vaudeville, did not augur any profound change in the state of the nation’s humor or the relationship between the American people and their president. During the next three decades, however, this self-described “ropin’ fool” ingeniously mastered the revolution in mass media and the related expansion of the entertainment industry to become not only the country’s favorite comedian but also its foremost political commentator and social critic. By the early 1930s, when legendary...

  9. 4 New Frontiers
    (pp. 99-138)

    The remarkable connection between the most significant political comedian of the twentieth century, Will Rogers, and its most powerful president, Franklin Roosevelt, began to cement the relationship between the presidency and comedy performance in the minds of many Americans. Both men were agents and beneficiaries of the boom in electronic mass media, and both skillfully exploited their new proximity to the public through radio, film, and print to humanize the chief executive in diverse ways. Roosevelt’s efforts were calculated to endear the president to the people, and humor figured prominently in his strategy. Rogers opened the presidency to ridicule but...

  10. 5 All Lies and Jest
    (pp. 139-189)

    The first days and months after John F. Kennedy’s assassination were as unkind to political standup comedy as they were to the grieving nation as a whole.The First Familywas removed from store shelves, as was a sequel, which had been released in the spring of 1963. The horrors in Dallas prompted the albums’ producers to call Cadence Records and ask that all unsold copies be returned to warehouses to be destroyed out of respect for the murdered president and his family. They were. Nightclubs were mostly empty the entire weekend of the assassination. On Broadway, where Mort Sahl...

  11. 6 Rebellion by the Pound
    (pp. 190-214)

    “I hear that whenever someone in the White House tells a lie, Nixon gets a royalty.” By the fall of 1973 Johnny Carson’s jabs at the president of the United States were becoming more constant and merciless as the deepening Watergate investigation pointed decidedly toward Richard Nixon’s personal criminal involvement. In one monologue that autumn Carson remarked, “Did you know that Richard Nixon is the only president whose formal portrait was painted by a police sketch artist?” His audience—numbering five hundred in NBC’s Burbank, California, studio, 12 million in front of television sets nationwide, and legions of network executives...

  12. EPILOGUE: Back to the Future
    (pp. 215-228)

    On April 17, 2008, Stephen Colbert broadcast his half-hour satiric send-up of political infotainment,The Colbert Report, from the birthplace of American democratic government: Philadelphia. In the wake of the latest debate between the Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination, and just prior to that month’s Pennsylvania primary, all the leading players gathered in the University of Pennsylvania’s Zellerbach Theater, where the show had been in residence all week, to play their parts and share a few laughs. The apparently immortal Ben Franklin—inventor, founding father, and pioneering political funnyman—sitting off to the side as Colbert’s special sidekick for...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 229-250)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 251-257)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 258-258)