Presidential Humor, Satire and Parody

As President Ford is buried today in Grand Rapids, Michigan, we remember the many positive things about his time in office, including his excellent sense of humor.  Over the years, no president has been immune to the biting wit of satirists and comedians.  On more than one occasion the cameras caught President Ford taking an accidental fall.  He became the butt of jokes, especially on Saturday Night Live.  He knew the value of humor in his Presidential speeches.  His head speech writer was Bob Orben who was recognized as one of the top current-events joke writers of that day.

A good strategy for dealing with jokes made at your expense is to join the laughter.  A person who is able take him or herself lightly is more likely to be admired than someone who becomes defensive or angry.  Gerald Ford joked about his apparent clumsy behavior (although in fact he was a good athlete).  His Press Secretary, Ron Nessen, was the first political figure to host Saturday Night Live on April 17, 1976.  The opening of that show, “Live From New York…It’s Saturday Night!” was delivered by none other than the President himself, Gerald Ford.  He is the only sitting President to open that show.  If you can’t beat them…join them!

It seems that Presidential humor over the years has become more harsh.  Although all the Presidents, over the last 28 years anyway, have taken some pretty heavy satirical hits.  George W. Bush, much to his credit has rolled with the punches.  The hosts of late night talk shows, comedians and impersonators have poked fun at his mannerisms and speaking skills.  Bill Clinton was taunted endlessly for his indiscretions.  Even Ronald Reagan, as popular as he was, was the target of regular jokes about his age and lack of alertness. Impersonators study their targets in great detail.  They watch for facial expressions, tilts of the head, hand and arm gestures, how they lean on the lectern, specific word choices, pronunciation choices, glaring mistakes.  Although it helps for an impersonator to look like the target of the humor, if the mannerisms and the voice match, it almost doesn’t matter what the comic looks like.  For example, take comedian Frank Caliendo’s impersonations of Bush and Clinton on the Tonight Show.  He doesn’t really look like either one of them, but his impersonations are excellent.

And then there are impersonators who look and sound like the real thing.  Steve Bridges has a great career impersonating George W. Bush.  Watch as he makes an appearance on Comedy Central at the Jeff Foxworthy roast.  I was impressed with President Bush’s decision to speak on the same platform with Steve Bridges at the White House Press Corps Dinner in Washington DC.  The back and forth dialogue had obviously been scripted, reviewed and approved in advance.  And the President had lots of funny lines and did a great job poking fun at himself.  This is the best way to diffuse most kinds of humor when you are the target.

A lesson to be learned is that when you are going to be the recipient of humor at your expense, perhaps in a roast situation…roll with it.  Laugh at the jokes, make some of your own jokes at your own expense before you fire back.  People will love you for it and it will give you points on the likeability scale.