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! Chester Arthur (1881-85) was probably a funny guy ... he was a very effective cog in New York City's Republican political machine, so he knew how to rub elbows with the best of 'em.
But if we've giving him a shot at the title, we need to think outside the box. Christopher Oldstone-Moore is an expert in the history of facial hair, grooming and other projections of masculinity - and he just published a great book, "Of Beards and Men." He's helping us figure out if Arthur was the funniest LOOKING president, thanks to his amazing whiskers.
We get context for the "bearded age," the peculiar 50-year span when America's leaders dared to wear facial hair. Chris explains the origins of Chester's look, and the statement he was trying to make. And ultimately, we figure out if it's cool to use our modern standards when deciding if Arthur was, in fact, funny looking.
It's a hair-raising discussion. HA!
The search for the funniest president continues! Today, most people just know Taft as the heaviest president -- but in his day the big guy was one of the most lovable public figures in America.
Our guest is Jon Lurie, a professor emeritus of legal history at Rutgers University who published a Taft biography in 2012. We talk about Taft's famous full-body laugh and his sardonic sense of humor. We review the most famous fat jokes at Taft's expense -- and the ways Taft responded to them. And most important, we try to figure out why a famously fun guy seemed so miserable while serving in the White House.
- William Howard Taft: Travails of a Progressive Conservative
- The Dynamic Value of Sunshine
- The bathtub story
MUSIC: Hail Columbia, "Super Chief" by Count Basie and His Orchestra, "My Ohio Home" by Jean Goldkette and His Orchestra
The search for the funniest president continues! Martin Van Buren took the rule book for American politics, set it on fire and wrote his own. He more or less invented the notion of professional political parties, then used his amazing creation to get Andrew Jackson elected president. When Jackson retired, MVB succeeded him in the White House.
But was he FUNNY? Journalist/historian/author James Bradley is a co-editor of Van Buren's papers -- he knows "Old Kinderhook" cold. We talk about the comedy Van Buren would have grown up with in his father's tavern and the ways he practiced humor to his political advantage. Most important, we talk about MVB's political revolution -- and the generations of presidential humor that became possible as a result.
MUSIC: Hail Columbia, "Martin on Every Block" by Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra, "Ultrafox" by Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club Quintet
The search for the funniest president continues! FDR rewrote the rule book for presidential behavior ... including the use of humor. His deeply personal connections with voters, reporters and fellow world leaders produced a lot of laughs (and also a bunch of government programs, but who's counting?).
Bill Harris of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum helps us get inside Roosevelt's head. We talk about the origins of Roosevelt's sometimes corny humor, his willingness to be silly in serious settings, and his calculated use of laughter to control certain situations. Plus we break down two bits of comedy associated with FDR: the famous "Fala speech," and the Broadway musical "I'd Rather Be Right."
The search for the funniest president continues! When presenting himself to the public, Lyndon Johnson tried to be the stiff, serious model of a president. But as a politician, LBJ had a remarkable gift for humor. Many of his friends (and foes) remember him as the ultimate storyteller. Armed with an endless supply of folksy anecdotes and colorful expressions, Johnson could use comedy to control a situation, whenever it seemed necessary.
Our guest is the great playwright Robert Schenkkan, the man behind "All the Way." That play -- which won several Tony awards in 2014 -- dramatizes the first year of Johnson's presidency, when he was fighting for both passage of the Civil Rights Act and his election in 1964. Robert has produced a remarkable character study of LBJ, and he tells us how LBJ's sense of humor fits into that portrait.
- "All the Way" at Arena Stage
- LBJ's phone recordings from 1964 (Miller Center)
- Robert Schenkkan's website
Music: "Hail Columbia," "Under a Texas Moon" by Guy Lombardo, "Texas Shuffle" by Count Basie and his Orchestra
The search for the funniest president continues! Rutherford Hayes was a good lawyer, a fine soldier and a world-class beard-grower. But was he also the funniest president?
Kristina Smith of the Hayes Presidential Library and Museums (located in beautiful Fremont, Ohio) get us acquainted with the 19th president and his sense of humor. We talk about Hayes' diary, his skill as a conversationalist, and the many ways he is exactly like your dad. Seriously, Hayes might be the ultimate dad president.
- The diary and letters of Rutherford Hayes online
- The Hayes Presidential Center
- Hayes political cartoons
MUSIC: Hail Columbia, "The Bearded One" by Nat Pierce and his Orchestra, "My Ohio Home" by Jean Goldkette and his Orchestra
Up next: Back to the 20th century ...
The search for the funniest president continues! William McKinley had a pretty amazing political career. But after an assassin voted Bill out of office, Theodore Roosevelt stole his spotlight, his thunder and a lot of his legacy. The American public has forgotten a lot about the 25th president.
Should we try to remember his sense of humor? Our special guest is Chris Kenney, the director of education at the McKinley Presidential Library and Museum in Canton, Ohio. He's giving us a crash course on McKinley's personality and sharing a few stories showing the lighter side of a very successful politician. Plus, we get a little more insight into what it's like to play a president -- Chris sometimes dons the top hat and does a first-person interpretation of McKinley.
MUSIC: Hail Columbia, "McKinley for President" by Ray McKinley's Orchestra, "Little Niles" by Randy Weston
Next week: To be determined
The search for the funniest president continues! William Henry Harrison is the closest thing we have to a punchline president. After a lifetime of public service, he became the commander-in-chief, then died one month later.
But does that make Harrison the funniest president? Our guest this week is Megan Amram, a fantastic comedy writer and Twitter savant who worked on "Parks and Recreation." She was the lead writer on the 2015 episode titled "William Henry Harrison," so she's actually given some serious thought to the comedic value of the ninth president.
We talk about Harrison, the joy of weird museums, and the ethic of "Parks and Rec" -- one of the most respected (and fairly bipartisan) sources of political humor from the last decade.
- "William Henry Harrison" recap on NBC's website
- Megan Amram on Twitter
- Megan's science textbook
- The real Harrison museum in Vincennes
Music: Hail Columbia, "Indiana" by Art Tatum, "Indiana" by Earl Fatha Hines
Next week: William McKinley, with the assistance of the McKinley museum in Canton
The search for the funniest president continues! Barack Obama is currently the leader of the free world … but when he changes jobs in a few months, will he have a future in comedy?
Two great guests stop by the Improv to break down the humor of the 44th president. Brad Jenkins worked in the White House Office of Public Engagement as the liaison to the creative community. David Litt was a presidential speechwriter whose duties included taking the lead on the White House Correspondents’ Association speeches. Today, they’re the Washington office of the comedy juggernaut Funny or Die.
We talk about the president’s natural humor, and some of the revolutionary ways the Obama administration has used humor as a communications strategy for the digital age. Not to be missed!
- Obama and Luther (2015)
- Between Two Ferns
- Buzzfeed video
- Obama slow jams the news
- Brad Jenkins TEDx talk
MUSIC: Hail Columbia, "Everybody Does It in Hawaii" by King Oliver and his Orchestra, "Hawaiian War Chant" by Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra
Next week: Megan Amram on William Henry Harrison and "Parks and Recreation"
The search for the funniest president continues! Sure, Ulysses Grant saved American democracy for all future generations. But was he FUNNY? To get the answer, we’re talking to Grant himself -- with the assistance of Kenneth J. Serfass.
Ken is an educator and a retired U.S. Marine. His involvement in Civil War re-enacting, combined with his lifelong fascination with Grant, resulted in a very interesting career. Ken does a “first person living history impression” of the general, transforming himself into Grant for public events and presentations. He makes his home in Gettysburg, Pa., and that’s where we went for a lunchtime chat with both Ken and his alter-ego.
MUSIC: Hail Columbia, “My Good Man Sam” by King Oliver and his Orchestra, “Frolic Sam” by Barney Bigard and his Jazzopaters
Next week: David Litt and Brad Jenkins discuss Barack Obama.