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Headliner of State (2016-17)

chriswhiteInspired 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.

Join host Chris White, announcer Jared Stern and a fantastic roster of guests as they search for a new perspective on presidential personalities -- and inaugurate the Headliner of State!

Headliner of State: Inauguration (February 20, 2017)

In January 2016, we asked a simple question: Who is the funniest president of all time? After shining the spotlight on 43 different men, we have our answer.

 

Headliner of State: Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 2017)

Lincoln might be the greatest president. Can he also claim the title of funniest president? Lincoln Prize winner Richard Carwardine spent the last several years researching and writing "Lincoln's Sense of Humor." He joins us to chat about Abe's remarkable gift for storytelling, his purposeful use of comedy, and the ways it affected his public career -- for better or worse. It's a thoughtful, joke-filled discussion about the humanity of an American legend.

 

Headliner of State: James Garfield (February 10, 2017)

James Garfield was an insatiable student. But did he learn to be funny? Todd Arrington, the site manager for the James A. Garfield National Historic Site, tells us all about the 20th president's personality -- and why Garfield's good nature helped him become a political success.

 

Headliner of State: Zachary Taylor (January 25, 2017)

Was Zachary Taylor the funniest president ever? If any experts out there know, they ain't talking. So on a very special episode, we're going straight to Zachary Taylor himself. Get ready for seven minutes of stand-up comedy from the 12th president.

 

Headliner of State: George H.W. Bush (January 17, 2017)

Would it be prudent to call George Bush funny? Bush speechwriter Curt Smith tells us about the 41st president's personality and character. We cover the kind of humor that Bush enjoys, the "rules" he lives by as a public figure, and how he uses laughter to manage relationships.

 

Headliner of State: Gerald Ford (January 2, 2017)

Tragedy brought Gerald Ford to the White House ... but did humor help define his presidency? Our excellent expert is Ron Nessen, an accomplished journalist who served as Ford's press secretary -- and who hosted "Saturday Night Live."

 

Headliner of State: Jimmy Carter (December 20, 2016)

Jimmy Carter punched his ticket to Washington by running as an outsider. Could he make people laugh in the ultimate insider town? Our excellent expert is James Fallows, who worked as Carter's lead speechwriter for two years. (These days, he's an astounding journalist working at The Atlantic.)

 

Headliner of State: Theodore Roosevelt (November 30, 2016)

Teddy Roosevelt believed in "the strenuous life," and part of that was the strain of having so damn much fun. Wherever TR went, laughter was sure to follow. Joe Wiegand (teddyrooseveltshow.com) is our excellent expert. As a "reprisor," Joe transforms himself into the president to educate and entertain audiences.

 

Headliner of State: John Quincy Adams (November 21, 2016)

Lots of people have given John Quincy Adams the title of America's greatest diplomat. But could he negotiate his way to the title of America's funniest president? Biographer James Traub ("John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit") is our excellent expert this week.

 

Headliner of State: Woodrow Wilson (November 17, 2016)

You can't deny that Woodrow Wilson was one of the most important presidents. But was he the funniest president? Andrew Phillips, the curator of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, is our excellent expert.

 

Headliner of State: John Kennedy (October 24, 2016)

John F. Kennedy charmed voters, reporters and just about everyone he met with his quick wit and self-effacing jokes. Author Thomas Maier ("When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys," "The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings") shares the humor of a remarkably charismatic president.

 

Headliner of State: Grover Cleveland (October 20, 2016)

Grover Cleveland must have been fun -- the guy won the popular vote three times. But was he funny? Sharon Farrell, the caretaker of the Cleveland Birthplace in New Jersey, is our special guest. She gives us a tour of both sides of Grover: The hard-working politician and lawyer, and the fun-loving man's man.

 

Headliner of State: Ronald Reagan (October 10, 2016)

Ronald Reagan was called the "Great Communicator," and a big part of that was humor. Whether he was explaining his philosophy, deflating an opponent or firing up a crowd, Reagan knew that a well-placed joke could make all the difference. Our guest? The great Reagan biographer Lou Cannon.

 

Headliner of State: John Tyler (October 4, 2016)

John Tyler is the answer to a few trivia questions: The first vice president promoted to the big job, the president with the most kids, and the only president who joined the Confederacy. But was he the funniest president? Professor Edward P. Crapol helps us find out.

 

Headliner of State: Dwight Eisenhower (September 6, 2016)

We know that people liked Ike. But was comedy part of Dwight Eisenhower's appeal? Our guest is Michael Birkner, a history professor at Gettysburg College -- the very place where Eisenhower kept his offices after leaving the White House.

 

Headliner of State: Warren Harding (August 29, 2016)

Warren Harding was amazingly popular in his day. Was he also amazingly funny? We're joined by Sherry Hall, the site manager of the Harding Home Presidential Site in Marion, Ohio.

 

Headliner of State: Andrew Jackson (August 9, 2016)

Andrew Jackson has a reputation for killing ... but not in a comedic sense. He actually murdered a dude. So if we're looking at the comedy of Jackson, how does that work, exactly? Our guest is Michael Friedman, the composer and lyricist for the hit musical "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson."

 

Headliner of State: James Buchanan (August 2, 2016)

James Buchanan didn't have much to laugh about as president, what with that whole "Civil War" thing starting on his watch. But how much has that one huge stain warped our view of POTUS No. 15? Patrick Clarke, the director of President James Buchanan's Wheatland, welcomes us into the historic home to talk about Buchanan's personality.

 

Headliner of State: Millard Fillmore (July 6, 2016)

Some presidents weren't all that funny in life ... but thanks to Twitter, they're cracking people up in death. Yes, there are people out there using Twitter to assume the identity of dead presidents, and we're talking to the guys behind @fillmoremillard.

 

Headliner of State: Thomas Jefferson (June 30, 2016)

LSU Professor Andrew Burstein, the author of "Democracy's Muse," joins us to talk about Jefferson -- and the ways TJ has been misunderstood over the last 200 years. It's a great discussion that might change the way you think about American history.

 

Headliner of State: Harry Truman (June 22, 2016)

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.

 

Headliner of State: George W. Bush (June 17, 2016)

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 biz. As a bonus, we also discuss Donald Trump.

 

Headliner of State: Franklin Pierce (June 6, 2016)

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. Biographer Peter A. Wallner helps us unravel the mystery (and the humor) of POTUS 14.

 

Headliner of State: Benjamin Harrison (May 29, 2016)

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, is our guest.

 

Headliner of State: George Washington (May 23, 2016)

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, 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?

 

Headliner of State: Herbert Hoover (May 16, 2016)

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.

 

Headliner of State: James Polk (May 9, 2016)

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 man with a mullet.

 

Headliner of State: Chester Arthur (May 2, 2016)

To give Chet 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.

 

Headliner of State: William Howard Taft (April 25, 2016)

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, with a legendary laugh. Our guest is Jon Lurie, a professor emeritus of legal history at Rutgers University who recently published a Taft biography.

 

Headliner of State: Martin Van Buren (April 18, 2016)

Martin Van Buren 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. Did the OG of American politics use humor to grease the skids? James Bradley, a co-editor of Van Buren's papers, tells us.

 

Headliner of State: Franklin Roosevelt (April 11, 2016)

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.

 

Headliner of State: Lyndon Johnson (March 31, 2016)

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. Our guest is the great playwright Robert Schenkkan, the man behind "All the Way."

 

Headliner of State: Rutherford Hayes (March 28, 2016)

Rutherford 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.

 

Headliner of State: William McKinley (March 21, 2016)

Chris Kenney, the director of education at the McKinley Presidential Library and Museum in Canton, Ohio, gives us a crash course on McKinley's personality and shares a few stories showing the lighter side of a very successful politician.

 

Headliner of State: William Henry Harrison (March 14, 2016)

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.

 

Headliner of State: Barack Obama (March 7, 2016)

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!

 

Headliner of State: Ulysses Grant (February 29, 2016)

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, who does a “first person living history impression” of the president.

 

Headliner of State: Calvin Coolidge (February 22, 2016)

There’s no question that Calvin Coolidge was funny – stories of his wit have survived the test of time. But what makes him fascinating is the way he used his natural humor strategically. Journalist / author / historian Amity Shlaes shares her insight into the humor of “Silent Cal.”

 

Headliner of State: John Adams (February 15, 2016)

Take a little bit of Seinfeld, then mix in some Don Rickles, some David Sedaris and an encyclopedic knowledge of political philosophy. That might the recipe for John Adams – our second president, and possibly the funniest of the Founding Fathers. Amanda Norton of the Massachusetts Historical Society is our guest.

 

Headliner of State: Richard Nixon (February 8, 2016)

Richard Nixon wasn't a cut-up, but few people inspired more laughs. Does he deserve a shot at the title? This week's guest is Patric Verrone, a writer/producer for "Futurama," the TV show that made Nixon's head the president of Earth. We're talking about Nixon's second life as a cartoon, the qualities that made Nixon such an easy target, and Nixon's role in changing the very nature of presidential humor. To quote Zapp Brannigan, "Baby, it'll blow your mind."

 

Headliner of State: Andrew Johnson (February 1, 2016)

Andrew Johnson overcame crippling poverty to become ... well, the first impeached president. Did Johnson laugh in the face of adversity? Did his humor (or lack thereof) help or hurt him during his presidency? And should he get credit for one of the funniest ceremonies in American political history? Our expert is David O. Stewart, the author of "Impeached" (and several other excellent books).

 

Headliner of State: James Madison (January 25, 2016)

"This is a guy who's exceptionally smart and exceptionally confident ..." But is he funny? Christian Cotz, the director of education and visitor engagement at Montpelier -- Madison's awesome home in Orange County, Virginia -- helps us answer all the big questions. Could Madison work a room? Was he a straight man for Dolley? And did he ever get tired of the short jokes?

 

Headliner of State: James Monroe (January 18, 2016)

We travel to Fredericksburg to talk about president No. 5. Our guide is Daniel Preston of the University of Mary Washington -- the man in charge of editing Monroe's papers. We're talking about JM's personality, "public personas" in the 19th century, and how exactly you can get to know a guy who's been dead for 185 years.

 

Headliner of State: Bill Clinton (January 11, 2016)

For our debut, speechwriter and humorist Mark Katz helps us look at Bill Clinton. Mark was the writer / editor / coordinator for Clinton's speeches at the "Silly Season" dinners: the White House Correspondents Association, the Gridiron Club, and so forth. His memoir about those years, "Clinton and Me," has fantastic insights into Clinton's personality, the art of speechwriting and humor in general.