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Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

8 Memorable Political Campaigns by Comedians

A comedian running for political office – a scenario once more suited for a mediocre Robin Williams vehicle than real life – has become a growing trend in recent years. Roseanne Barr, who announced she was running for president on The Tonight Show earlier this month, is the latest comedian to throw her hat into the ring, but this is far from an isolated incident. Although comedians have been running for office with both serious and mock campaigns since the 1960s, the intensified intersection of pop culture and politics in the 24 hour cable news era has seen an uptick in the number of funny women and men trying to work their ways onto the ballot.

1. Pat Paulsen for President (1968)
If not the most famous mock candidate in the history of politics, Pat Paulsen was certainly the most persistent. Brought on to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Show in 1967 to deliver deadpan editorials, Paulsen soon began using the show as a platform for a satirical presidential run, affiliating himself with the STAG (Straight Talkin’ American Government) Party. His speeches, made up of absurdist witticisms and sarcastic remarks, were delivered with Paulsen’s trademark stone-faced glare and became a part of the national consciousness. Paulsen earned a lot of support as a write-in candidate in 1968 and even released a successful Pat Paulsen for President album. Although Paulsen’s 1968 campaign was the one in which he generated the most enthusiasm and support, he continued to run in subsequent presidential elections in 1972, 1980, 1988, 1992, and 1996.

2. Dick Gregory for President (1968)
One of the earliest comedians to successfully play to both black and white audiences, Dick Gregory was politically-conscious long before his 1968 write-in campaign. An avid activist for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, Gregory ran for Mayor of Chicago against controversial incumbent Richard J. Daley before his 1968 presidential run with the Freedom and Peace Party. According to his website, Dick Gregory received 1.5 million votes in the election, and there has been speculation that his candidacy took votes away from Democratic candidate Hubert Humphreys, tipping the election in favor of Richard Nixon. During one notable publicity stunt, the campaign printed and handed out $1 bills with Gregory’s face on them and a number of bills made it into circulation, leading the federal government to seize most of the faux-currency. Dick Gregory avoided criminal charges and quipped, “Everyone knows a black man will never be on a US bill.” Although he never again sought elected office after the 1968 election, Gregory wrote a book about these experiences called Write Me In! and remains an outspoken political activist to this day, frequently participating in hunger strikes for causes he supports.

3. Gallagher for Governor of California (2003)
California’s 2003 gubernatorial recall, which resulted in eight years of Arnold Schwarzenegger holding the highest office in the state and Jay Leno making “Governator” jokes to rapturous applause, led the state to briefly become a worldwide laughingstock. Anyone who would pay the $3,500 filing fee and could obtain 65 signatures was ensured a spot on the ballot, and many D-list celebrities jumped at the chance to earn a little bit of publicity by participating in this three-ring circus. Watermelon-smashing prop comic Gallagher threw his hat into the ring, finishing 16 out of 135 candidates with .006% of the vote, which is a poorer showing than his fellow candidates Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, former child actor Gary Coleman, and pornstar Mary Carey received.

During the course of the campaign, Gallagher was kicked out of the New York Post’s lobby by security because he was talking loudly and carting around a big cardboard box full of dirty clothes. The ideas that Gallagher campaigned with included requiring the national anthem to be sung in Spanish at sporting events, publishing obituaries for failed businesses, and banning people from talking on cell phones loudly. All of Gallagher’s political notions seemed rather small in scope, almost as if he had just modified the observational part of his act to seem like a political speech. I expected to find “We can save my constituents from confusion if we switch the names of parkways and driveways” amongst his campaign promises.

4. Don Novello for Governor of California (2003)
Don Novello, glory era SNL writer/performer and the man behind the beloved “Father Guido Sarducci” character, also filed papers to run for Governor in the 2003 recall election, which would have made him the second comedian in the race. Novello’s political dreams were cut short, though, when he failed to collect the necessary 65 signatures for placement on the ballot. It seems odd that a well-known TV star (albeit one who peaked in popularity a few decades prior) wouldn't be able to scrounge up such a paltry number of autographs, but keep in mind that this was in the pre-social networking days. Facebook or Twitter would have made this task much easier for Novello.

5. Doug Stanhope for President (2008)
Stand-up Doug Stanhope is perhaps best known for his brief stint as Joe Rogan's Man Show co-hosted in the failed second iteration of the Comedy Central series, but outside of that one short gig, he's a brutally honest, politically-charged comedian with a loyal following. Stanhope began toying with the idea of running president as a Libertarian in 2006, and he announced his candidacy later that year. In 2007, Stanhope withdrew from the race because of FEC restrictions that would have prevented him from using money from his comedy appearances for his campaign.

Determined to still have some involvement in the election, Doug Stanhope set up a website to raise money to pay for Bristol Palin, the daughter of candidate Sarah Palin who was then an expectant teen mother, to have an abortion. Just because Doug Stanhope had given up being a politician didn't mean that he'd stop being classy.

6. Stephen Colbert for President (2008)
After a year of build-up and announcements mocking the way politicians drag their feet when they enter the ring, Stephen Colbert announced on his TV show in 2007 that he’d be running for President in the following year's election. Colbert's intentions were to run as a “favorite son” in his home state of South Carolina only, but the South Carolina Democratic Party’s governing board voted 13-3 to keep him off the ballot, saying that he wasn't a serious candidate. If Colbert's campaign had made it any further, he would have had to put the brakes on his TV series because of equal time laws, which would have been bad news for comedy fans. Stephen Colbert has found a different way to needle with the 2012 presidential election with his recently-formed Super PAC.

7. Al Franken for Senator of Minnesota (2008)
The most successful and serious political campaign by a comedian yet, ex-SNL writer and author Al Franken's 2008 run for a Minnesota Senate seat proved that a humorist can transition into a career in politics and be taken seriously. The election was about as close as they come, with a recount lasting into the following year before Franken was declared winner. Since taking office, Al Franken has found himself at the center of headline stories on a frequent basis, championing a successful finance reform bill and criticizing the merger between Comcast and NBC/Universal (his former employer).

Franken's comedic past was the subject of some light controversy during his campaign, as a mid-90's <em>SNL</em> joke he had made about Andy Rooney sexually assaulting a female reporter was brought up throughout the election cycle. The fact that Franken had "joked about rape" even made it into attack ads. Franken was also criticized by opponent Norm Coleman for advising Lorne Michaels on a political sketch that ridiculed John McCain. This just seems like an example of the right desperately reaching for ways to criticize Franken. Comedians and politicians exist in such different worlds that there's of course going to be a little bit of a mess when one tries to transition from humor into government. It doesn't seem quite right for Franken's comedic work to be held under scrutiny during the election. Besides, if Al Franken's opponents can only dig up one or two controversial sketches from his 25+ years as a comedy writer, I'd say that's a pretty good track record that shouldn't prevent him from working in public service.

8. Roseanne Barr for President (2012)
America's most recent comedian to announce political intentions is Roseanne Barr, the former network sitcom queen and current basic cable reality show star. Barr made her announcement on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (which is where Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his gubernatorial candidacy in 2002) last month, saying that she'd be seeking the highest office in the land in the next election. During the course of the Leno interview, Roseanne spit off corny quips about her candidacy that lacked Pat Paulsen's insight and wit (she’s running under the banner of “The Green Tea Party”).

So far, it seems like Roseanne's announcement was just a one-off joke and a publicity stunt for her reality show, but this trend of comedians starting up political campaigns – both serious and mocking – is here to stay. Recently-ousted talk show host George Lopez has announced his interest in running for Mayor of Los Angeles in a future election, a political think-tank in Ohio is trying to convince Drew Carey to seek a Senate seat, and Alec Baldwin, who can be considered primarily a comedic actor at this point, is contemplating a run for Mayor of New York. Who knows? Someday, Al Franken may not be the only comedian in the legislative branch.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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  • Colin Hughes@twitter

    Howard Stern won the primary for governor of NY. He should easily be on this list.

  • Dan Davis@facebook

    How can you not list the first and greatest Presidential Campaign of the modern comic age: Gracie Burns for President.

    That's right, George Burns air-headed brilliant wife ran in the 30's, did a Whistle Stop train tour, had a national convention, and received quite a few votes. All with political honesty like, "Oh, I don't agree with our foreign affairs. We should have all our affairs at home." or "Our national debt is almost the largest in the world? Well this is the US. If we can't have the largest in the world we won't have none at all."

  • Ray Anselmo@twitter

    Gracie Burns was the all-time best. She ran on the Surprise Party ticket ("My mother was a Democrat, and my father was a Republican, but they agree that when I was born, I was definitely a Surprise"). And when asked how she felt about recognizing the Soviet Union: "Oh, I don't know … you meet so many new people."

    Also, slight nitpick: Schwarzenegger was governor of California for seven years, not eight. Seven was bad enough, thanks.