The Funniest President?
Our parents had comparatively few records in the house growing up. This was one of them. It was, I’ve since learned, the follow up album to an album we didn’t own. The President Strikes Back was recorded by one Marc London, a stalwart of 1960s comedy writing and acting. It was also recorded just a few weeks before Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
It’s uncanny quite how funny this record is. As children, we knew very little about Camelot and the machinations of the Kennedy family. But there was just something about Kennedy’s voice (as rendered by London) that was hilarious. There is an entire sketch devoted to the Bostonian pronunciation of “Cuba” (“Cuber”). The very best sketch consists of President Kennedy getting into a taxi and the cabby not recognising him. The Cabbie is sure’s he’s seen this guy somewhere and prides himself on never forgetting a face. Eventually, Kennedy relents and confesses that he is indeed Peter Lawford’s brother in law – at which point the star struck driver lets Kennedy off the fare (“I er never er thought knowing Peter Lawford would er ever pay off” being the final punchline.)
But the main joke on this album is about Kennedy wanting to be funnier than he is. With this album, the very stiff and awkward Kennedy hopes to thwart his domestic rivals and dazzle international world leaders. Adlai Stevenson curses himself for not recording a comedy album, while Khrushchev and Nehru rush out albums of their own.
In reality, of course, Kennedy was an extremely funny man. Bob Hope, a right wing republican with no reason to lie, declared Kennedy the funniest President he’d ever met (and he’d met more Presidents than just about anyone).
Bob Hope never met Barack Obama though, who is an extremely funny President. He’s also, not coincidentally, the most dignified President of my lifetime, the President who performs the role of President with more assurance, confidence and authority than any occupant of the Oval Office in decades. This is why Obama’s exquisitely timed, dry and po faced comedy works so well. He is a funny President because he understands that a President being funny is itself funny, so long as the President doesn’t look as though they are trying too hard.
Today is his birthday. So here is Barack Obama’s impression of Daniel Day Lewis impersonating Barack Obama:
Do we want politicians to be funny? Well, we like the idea of them not taking themselves too seriously. But we don’t necessarily like the idea of them looking as though they need laughs in the same way they need applause. After all, Bojo’s need to be funny has helped to destroy a fairly well known nation.