If President Trump — in any context — looked into a camera and said “sock it to me,” the antic would cause few to bat an eye. Fifty years ago, however, the same line spoken by presidential candidate Richard Nixon piloted a new sort of campaign strategy. To some, it was a refreshing reach across generations and culture; others bemoaned the act as silly pandering from a man charged to represent constant gravitas. In any case, Nixon’s cameo in a popular comedy program set a new cultural precedent for our expectations of the highest office.
Now that the presidency has reached the logical conclusion of this arc (a reality television star), have our expectations changed?
Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In offered a cultural experience in the late ’60s that seemed to counter most of what Richard Nixon represented. The colorful sketch comedy program borrowed an aesthetic from mod and hippy culture, and its offbeat, irreverent humor synced with youth rebellion of the time. So what was Nixon doing on there?
After his somewhat unsettling television appearances in the 1960 presidential debates, it was clear that Nixon was in need of a fresher image for the masses. According to producer George Schlatter, Laugh-In writer Paul Keyes was close to Nixon and convinced him to take part in the bit in their season premiere episode. After six takes, they wound up with a shot of the presidential hopeful reading the line like a stern question: “Sock it to me?”
“It elected Richard Nixon,” Schlatter claimed, perhaps overestimating the power of comedy as a political force. After all, a country taking part in an unpopular war and burning with racial strife was ripe for a party change. But could Nixon’s foolhardy dive into sketch comedy have helped him in the polls?
The strategy of humanizing oneself with the masses via late night talk shows and comedy appearances went dormant for a few decades. Then, like a blinding light, came Bill Clinton’s saxophone rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992. Clinton’s campaign to win over younger voters even found the governor discussing his inhaling-or-not-inhaling pot smoke on MTV. George H.W. Bush was unable to keep up with the cool candidate, and, since then, every presidential candidate has employed comedy shtick in their campaign.
George W. Bush took to Letterman to read a joke list of his presidential priorities in 2000 that included “Make sure the White House library has lots of books with big print and pictures.” Obama stopped in at The Daily Show in 2008 and even made an appearance on Zach Galifianakis’s surreal stoner comedy show Between Two Ferns. And Saturday Night Live — the Laugh-In that lasted — has featured nearly every post-W. candidate in bits ranging from meta to over-the-top. Sarah Palin watched Amy Poehler deride her “bridge to nowhere” and gun obsession while raising the roof; Obama wore a Halloween mask of his own face; and Hillary played a Trump-impersonating bartender.
And then came Jimmy Fallon’s famous tousling of Donald Trump’s hair, a move he later regretted after a barrage of criticism that he “normalized hate.” Whether or not Fallon’s playfulness with Trump could have moved the scales on the election is anyone’s guess. Unlike Richard Nixon, Trump had already been a television star with more media exposure than the attendees at any Hollywood party combined.
The in-joke seemed to end after election day, at least for late night hosts and Saturday Night Live. On November 12, 2016, on SNL, Kate McKinnon opened the show singing Leonard Cohen’s somber “Hallelujah” dressed as Hillary Clinton. The same sketch comedy show that Trump had hosted a year before was now mourning his ascent to the presidency with some anti-comedy performance art.
When presidential appearances on comedy programs became routine instead of shocking, they likely lost much of their ability to present candidates as “cool.” But do we even want a cool president? In 1960, when J.F.K. and Nixon were both scheduled to appear on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show, James Reston, of the Times, didn’t understand why “these two deadly serious and tense young men want to prove they are funny and relaxed.” If he were alive today, Reston might download Obama’s Spotify playlist and read about Trump’s Most Hilarious Tweets to figure it out.
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