Headliner of State
Inspired by the 2016 election, The DC Improv searched for the funniest president. We talked to historians, comedians, enthusiasts and more about which leaders could take a joke, which ones could make a joke, and which ones inspired jokes. Get a new perspective on presidential personalities on Headliner of State!
The search for the funniest president continues! Thomas Jefferson left behind a huge paper trail, but we're still arguing about where that trail leads. Was Jefferson a brilliant philosopher or a hypocritical racist? Was he a principled revolutionary or a calculating politician? And with all this background noise, can we ever hope to figure out the important stuff: If Jefferson was funny?
LSU Professor Andrew Burstein, the author of "Democracy's Muse," is our guest. And he has fantastic insights into both Jefferson's character and the ways that Jefferson has been misunderstood over the last 200 years. It's a great discussion that might change the way you think about American history.
Music: Hail Columbia, "I'm Coming Virginia" by the Benny Carter Orchestra, "In the Hall of the Mountain King" by Henri Rene's Orchestra
The search for the funniest president continues! Harry Truman might be one of the most likable presidents ... but does that mean he's also one of the funniest?
Matthew Algeo, the author of "Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure," is our guest. His book tells the story of ex-president Truman's 1953 road trip with his wife -- where he drove the car himself and tried (unsuccessfully) to travel incognito. It's a charming story that lets Harry's personality shine through.
Did Truman's "regular guy" ethic carry over to his comedy? Was he the best practical joker among presidents? And did highway patrolmen find his driving a little funny? Find out!
Music: Hail Columbia, "Kansas City Stride" by Count Basie and His Orchestra, "Kansas City Squabble" by Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra
The search for the funniest president continues! George W. Bush generates a lot of laughter ... whether it's through his good-natured charm, or through jokes at his expense. Does he deserve a shot at the title?
We're joined by the great comedian Frank Caliendo, whose Bush impression might be the best in the business. His take on GWB was seen on "MADtv," Letterman, at the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner and on comedy stages across the country. (And it might be seen at the DC Improv July 7-9, when Frank headlines five shows.)
And we're not just talking about Bush. Frank also does an incredible Donald Trump impression, so we're getting his insight on the presumptive GOP nominee for 2016.
- Frank doing Bush for Letterman
- Frank at the 2006 RTCA dinner
- More Frank video highlights
Music: "Hail Columbia," "Under a Texas Moon" by Guy Lombardo, "Texas Shuffle" by Count Basie and his Orchestra
In 2016, we decided to find the funniest president, because SOMEBODY's gotta do it.
As of this week, we're more than halfway there! Our 22 podcast episodes so far have featured authors, historians, comedy writers, a playwright and more. We've gotten a bunch of different perspectives on the presidents themselves, and what it means to use comedy when you're the most famous person in America. If you're looking to catch up, here's an episode guide, organized by the kind of guests we've had:
Outside the Box
- U.S. Grant. Kenneth J. Serfass works as a "living history" interpreter of Grant.
- C.A. Arthur. Chris Oldstone-Moore is a historian with an expertise in facial hair, making him the perfect guy to talk about Chester.
- L.B. Johnson. Robert Schenkkan is the award-winning playwright of "All the Way," which won a Tony and was recently adapted for HBO.
- George Washington. Azie Dungey worked at Mount Vernon, and her "Ask a Slave" web series was a huge hit. She now writes for "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt."
- W.H. Harrison. Megan Amram wrote the "William Henry Harrison" episode of "Parks and Recreation."
- Richard Nixon. Patric Verrone worked on "Futurama," where Nixon (or at least his head) was president.
- Bill Clinton. Speechwriter Mark Katz coordinated the speeches for some of Clinton's funniest moments.
- Barack Obama. Brad Jenkins worked as the outreach coordinator to the creative community for the White House; David Litt was a speechwriter who (among other things) coordinated comedy efforts. Now they work for Funny Or Die DC.
- James Polk. John Bicknell wrote "America 1844," a look at the election that brought Polk to power.
- Franklin Pierce. Peter A. Wallner's two-volume biography of Pierce is the best one in the last 75 years.
- Andrew Johnson. David O. Stewart studied Johnson for his compelling book "Impeached!"
- W.H. Taft. Jonathan Lurie's love of legal history led him to write a Taft biography.
- Calvin Coolidge. Amity Shlaes is the acclaimed author of the 2013 biography "Coolidge."
Presidential Libraries and Historic Sites
- James Madison. Christian Cotz is in charge of shaping the visitor experience at Montpelier, Madison's home.
- Rutherford Hayes. Kristina Smith works for the recently refurbished Hayes museum and home in Ohio.
- Benjamin Harrison. Charlie Hyde is the president and CEO of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site in Indianapolis.
- William McKinley. Chris Kenney runs the educational programs at the McKinley memorial/museum in Ohio.
- F.D. Roosevelt. William Harris works for NARA, helping run the show at the FDR Library (and home) in Hyde Park.
- Herbert Hoover. Tom Schwartz is the historian directing the Hoover Library in Iowa.
Historians / Archivists
Last week on "Headliner of State" we talked to Charlie Hyde, the president and CEO of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. Charlie just passed along one more bit of Harrison humor from the files -- a bit of "wry and understated" humor about another president:
"One item I meant to mention ... was an instance in which President Harrison introduced New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt to the members of an ecumenical conference. Here’s an excerpt.
“Of course, it was no trouble for Governor Roosevelt to come here. Indeed, I think he rather likes to get away from Albany, and if we may believe those unfailing chroniclers of the truth, whose representatives are here before me, he is not infrequently here for the purpose of having consultations. He availed himself of the few moments that we spent together in the reception-room to consult me about a matter, and when I had given him my opinion, he said, Well, that is what I was going to do anyhow, no matter what you would say, I felt very lucky that I had hit upon the conclusion to which he had already arrived. We are glad to have from him these hearty words of commendation of the cause of missions. I think you can receive as the truth what he has said. In my observation of him he has a passion for the truth. The only trouble I ever had with managing him and you know, as he has confessed, how thoroughly I did that was that it seemed to me he wanted to put an end to all the evil in the world between sunrise and sunset. He was not willing to take as much time sometimes as I thought was necessary in order not to fracture things too much, though we never differed as to the end that was to be attained. He wanted to get there very quick I am, perhaps, a little bit too conservative and slow but it is pleasant to have in his person one known to us all to be so thorough a soldier of righteousness and right-doing…”
Franklin Pierce loved to party! But he married a woman who hated to party. And he was really charismatic! But he's usually remembered as a failed president.
In other words, Pierce was complicated. We're gonna need a top-notch expert to figure out if he was funny, and that's where Peter A. Wallner comes in. His two-volume biography of "Handsome Frank" is probably the most thoroughly researched work on Pierce in 75 years. We talk about the qualities that made Pierce so charming, whether Pierce had a drinking problem, and how Pierce kept his spirits up while enduring personal tragedies. (Such as, witnessing the decapitation of his son. Yikes.)
And stick around until the end for what might be the most juvevnile bit of humor in this whole series.
MUSIC: Hail Columbia, "Drink to Me Only With Thine Own Eyes" by John Kirby and His Orchestra
The search for the funniest president continues! Some of Benjamin Harrison's contemporaries ridiculed him as a "human iceberg," and the nickname stuck. This episode, we're thawing him out to see if there's a great sense of humor buried under that reputation.
Charlie Hyde, the head honcho at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site in Indianapolis, helps us understand why Harrison could be so formal at times -- and he shares the things that loosened Harrison up. Plus, we talk about Harrison's special place in the history of presidential humor, as the first sitting president to address a Gridiron Club dinner.
We've got stories about a goat cart, Harrison fighting crime with his bare hands, and more ... It's a fun look at a lesser-known president.
MUSIC: Hail Columbia, "Benny Rides Again" and "Benjie's Bubble" by the Benny Goodman Orchestra
We're searching for the funniest president -- but focusing on laughs can obscure the less-pleasant parts of a president's legacy. For example, lots of the early presidents had slaves. And no one had more than George Washington.
So let's get into it! Our guest is Azie Dungey. Currently a writer for "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," Azie is also the creator and star of the "Ask a Slave" web series from 2013. She worked as a costumed interpreter at Mount Vernon, and the series puts a comedic (and thought-provoking) spin on her experiences. Can you use comedy to teach people about slavery? Does the stain of slavery ruin Washington's image? And, oh yeah, was Washington funny?
MUSIC: Hail Columbia, "Shorty George" by Count Basie and His Orchestra, "Washington Squabble" by Claude Hopkins and His Orchestra
The search for the funniest president continues! Herbert Hoover unfairly takes the rap for the Great Depression ... but if we look past all that economic moping, was he actually a funny guy?
Tom Schwartz, the director of the Hoover Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, helps us find out. We discuss how Bert's Quaker upbringing shaped his self-expression, review some of his truly amazing accomplishments and explore his special (and humorous) connection with the youth of America.
MUSIC: Hail Columbia, "The Quaker" by the Erroll Garner Trio, "Fish Fry" by Benny Carter and His Orchestra
The search for the funniest president continues!
James K. Polk is legendary for getting stuff done -- his four years in office featured a war with Mexico and tremendous territorial expansion of the United States. But did Polk do it with a smile?
John Bicknell, the author of "America 1844," joins us to chat about the 11th president. We talk about Polk's legendary work ethic, what made him so driven, and whether humor EVER found its way into his White House. He won one election as a dark horse ... is there any chance he'll be elected funniest president?
MUSIC: Hail Columbia, "Charlie Horse" by Charlie Spivak and his Orchestra, "Tennessee Twilight" by the Eddie Condon Orchestra