Comedians, satirists, late-night television hosts and politicians know about Abraham Lincoln’s “earthy” sense of humor. The latest installment in Ford’s Theatre’s Cabinet Conversations Livestream Series was “A Hearty Laugh Relieves Me: Political Humor in Contentious Times.” The session examined President Lincoln’s wit and his influence on political humor.
“What we know about Abraham Lincoln, during the four years of his presidency, is that he turned to humor to help cope with the stresses of managing a country through the civil war,” said Ford’s Theatre Director Paul R. Tetreault. “He used it for personal and political benefits. He was known for telling jokes, his witty stories and for self-deprecation.”
The Ford’s Theatre conversation about political humor featured Mark Russell, renowned Washington, D.C. humorist who gained national prominence on public television and in annual performances at Ford’s Theatre. Also in the conversation was Joe Crowley, a political consultant who represented the 14th district in New York City. He lost his 2018 re-election bid to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
The discussion was moderated by Gordon Peterson, an award-winning local television news reporter and anchor who hosted the political talk show “Inside Washington” for 25 years. Reflecting on Lincoln’s approach to humor and how comedians go after political issues today, Peterson asked about the limits of political humor as practiced on television.
“Has a line been drawn?” Peterson asked.
“The line keeps moving. All the old rules do not apply,” said Russell.
The most reliable barometer of political humor is also one of the biggest events in Washington, the annual White House Correspondents Dinner? The tenor of that gathering has changed under the current White House administration. Due to the pandemic, it was not held this year.
Russell has been a master of ceremonies for the dinner and so have humorists Colbert, Meyers, Conan O’Brien, and Cedric the Entertainer. The gala has been known as a tough room. Presidents engage their speechwriting staff and occasionally secretly bring comedians, to create one-liners that make fun at themselves, the administration and those on the other side of the aisle.
It was at the 2011 Correspondents Dinner where President Barack Obama threw zingers at then citizen Donald Trump. It has been said that incident made Trump decide to run for President to get back at President Obama.
Russell recalled the year he was the master of ceremonies for the correspondent’s dinner. President Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan came to the dinner after returning from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. They received the bodies of Americans who were killed in a Nairobi, Kenya terrorist attack. President Reagan started his remarks by saying it was not a night for jokes and that Russell was better at that than he was.
“I went through with my routine and I bombed,” said Russell. “I wished I had followed President Reagan’s lead.”
When the Humor is Right
“The ability for a leader or a politician to laugh at one’s self and at politics more broadly, is a hallmark of our democracy,” said Crowley. “In humor, we not only have a release valve, but a way to call attention to ideological differences while still maintaining the bounds of democratic discourse.”
Humor can also serve as a teaching tool. Crowley said he heard an interview with actor Ethan Hawke who said listening to Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Chris Rock was responsible for him learning about racism, but it was all through humor. Crowley also was been influenced by political statements from the 1970s television seasons of “Saturday Night Live” and “Hee Haw.”
Russell questioned if comedy makes a difference anymore in how the public perceives who is in the White House.
“It used to be that if your name made it into a nightly monologue on Johnny Carson or Leno and those transgressions were known, you were finished,” said Russell about whether comedy influences political leanings. “Today, these guys late at night haven’t put a dent in our current President,” continued Russell. “Five nights a week for four years, you would think you’d be finished. I don’t think anyone has made a difference in terms of comedy. It just lightens things up.”
Go to https://www.fords.org/ to learn more about upcoming Cabinet Conversations and other events at Ford’s Theatre in downtown Washington, D.C.