This IS a Laughing Matter: Political Parodies in the United States

Caroline Nickerson

Sophomore, History and Chinese Double major

The wound The Colbert Report season finale left is still fresh. Perhaps the last heartbreaking straw was the final 30 seconds, which weren’t even a performance at all. The clip featured a tender moment between Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, laughing together as best friends before going back into character. It symbolized the man’s transition from fake pundit, a blowhard conservative caricature who mocked liberals, to Stephen Colbert’s newest incarnation in Letterman’s coveted late-night hosting seat, in which he plays no one but himself.

http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/videos/p2s8rc/sign-off—from-eternity

However, though this article sounds like an obituary of Stephen Colbert, the character, think of it as a “Celebration of Life,” as well as an analysis of his place in American history. Contrary to popular belief, Colbert wasn’t unprecedented. His antics and comedic feats, which extended from running for president (twice) to his own flavor of ice cream, find a predecessor and mirror in Pat Paulsen, a man often thought of as the Stephen Colbert of the 1970’s (minus the ice cream). Colbert’s campaigns must have been in some part inspired by Paulsen, as Pat Paulsen ran for President, purely in a comedic capacity, for the elections of 1968, 1972, 1980, 1988, 1992, and 1996 under the mantle of the S.T.A.G. (Straight Talking American Government) party.

Just as Colbert got his start from The Daily Show, Paulsen began his career on the most influential political comedy show of his time, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, later moving to his own spin-off, Pat Paulsen’s Half a Comedy Hour. Also like Colbert, Paulsen was incredibly funny, constantly producing mocking campaign slogans like, “We Can Be Decisive, Probably,” “United We Sit,” “If Elected, I Will Win,” and “Pat Paulsen for the White House—He has to Sleep Somewhere.” Colbert’s campaign slogans, like Paulsen’s, had an irreverent tone. He ran under “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow,” as well as “First to Secede, First to Succeed!”

Though this variety of comedy appears ephermal on first glance, it is clear that Paulsen and Colbert have effects lasting far beyond their particular election cycle, or even their era. Paulsen set a solid example for future satirists. Even today, his estate maintains a mock campaign website, thoughtfully postulating that ”Pat’s campaign was based in comedy and he ran it using outright lies, double talk and unfounded attacks on his challengers. Who thought that this style would be the method of campaigns in the future?” Colbert, of course, is moving to a different platform, and will produce content for another decade or more. Nonetheless, in addition to his comedy, he will be remembered for his enthusiasm and spirit. One of the lesser-known Colbert quotations comes from a commencement address to Knox College, and it is, despite its lack of humor, one of the best summations of his philosophy:

“Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying ‘yes’ begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying ‘yes’ leads to knowledge. ‘Yes’ is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say ‘yes’.

And that’s The Word.”

Source List:

http://www.nytimes.com/1997/04/26/us/pat-paulsen-69-a-parodist-of-presidential-doubletalk.html

http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2012/01/Stephen-Colbert-and-Pat-Paulsen-Comedians-in-Chief

http://departments.knox.edu/newsarchive/news_events/2006/x12547.html

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