When Stephen Colbert threw his hat into the presidential ring — before South Carolina threw it back — he was embarking on a remarkably recurrent pop-culture event. It’s unlikely that even Colbert was aware of the tradition he was continuing — but for a century now, a different popular entertainer has made a significant, quixotic run for the presidency every 20 years. Colbert, though his candidacy appears to have lasted only a few weeks, is the fifth in a proud line of satirists, performers, and puppets.
1928 Folksy humorist Will Rogers was the first in this series of funnymen to seek office, or at least go through the motions. Life magazine was the instigator, introducing an editorial suggesting Rogers be added to the ballot as the “Anti-Bunk” candidate. Almost instantly, Babe Ruth and Henry Ford lent their names to the “campaign,” and Rogers began writing a weekly column in Life, brimming with jokes about his candidacy — and the other candidates, as well. His only campaign promise? “If elected, I will resign.” He didn’t have to.
1948 The next popular entertainer to run for high office was Howdy Doody, the wooden marionette star of NBC’s Puppet Playhouse Presents. (A year later, it would be renamed The Howdy Doody Show, in honor of the popularity of its star.) Freckle-faced Howdy was running for a special post — president of all the kids — and sent free campaign buttons to anyone who wrote in. They received 60,000 requests, at a time when the number of American homes equipped with TV sets was only triple that.
1968 Here was the most brilliant campaign of all, and the one that served as a template for what Colbert wanted to do, and could have done. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a daringly topical CBS variety series, decided to lampoon the volatile presidential race by putting up its own faux editorialist, deadpan comedian Pat Paulsen, as a candidate.
At first, Paulsen went on the show to deny emphatically he was running — then to insist he’d been misquoted, and finally, to announce himself as the representative of the Straight Talkin’ American Government party. The STAG party, for short. Paulsen gave speeches on the Comedy Hour, and even hit the campaign trail, mingling with Robert F. Kennedy, who got the joke and played along, and with some other, less comfortable actual candidates. He was a write-in candidate, not on any official ballot — which is what allowed him to wage his campaign on such a grand scale in the first place.
Paulsen’s 1968 stand on abortion — remember, this was five years before Roe v. Wade — could just as easily have been voiced today by Colbert.
“I’ve faced tough questions while campaigning,” Paulsen said, “and am always asked, ‘Are you pro-choice?’
“And my answer has always been, ‘Yes and no.’ ”
It was an astoundingly unsettled time: President Lyndon Johnson announced his decision not to seek a second term, and Bobby Kennedy sought the Democratic nomination, but was shot and killed after winning the California primary. On the other side, Richard Nixon would run for the Republican nomination, and win, and become president of the United States. Paulsen, though, got 200,000 actual or protest write-in votes in the 1968 election.
1988 Inspired in part by what The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour had done with Pat Paulsen, Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau and director Robert Altman teamed for a groundbreaking HBO series called Tanner ’88. Tanner was a fictional Democratic politician played by Michael Murphy, and his idealistic daughter was played by Cynthia Nixon, later of Sex and the City.
Taking advantage of Altman’s fluid and improvisatory filmmaking technique, Tanner ’88 shot its episodes on the move and on the campaign trail via hand-held video, getting Tanner to travel the same path as, and sometimes cross paths with, such actual candidates as Gary Hart, Bob Dole, Pat Robertson, and Bruce Babbitt, with whom Tanner spent an entire episode commiserating about the dehumanizing and demeaning schedule of campaign appearances.
The mixture of fictional characters and real people in Tanner ’88 was a clear precursor of such subsequent HBO comedies as The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm. The show’s style and substance, examining and poking fun at what the candidates do and how the media report it, was a blueprint for the kind of scrutiny politicians, pundits, and media journalists would be given, 20 years later, by Stewart and Colbert on their respective Comedy Central programs.