Laugh Lines: Campaign Comedy

Laugh Lines: Campaign Comedy

How politicians use humor not only to
make a point, but to illustrate that point.

By Gene Perret

The legendary comedian Red Skelton, in some of his radio and television sketches, used to play a blustery politician who began all his pompous speeches with, “My good friends – and you are my friends – and don’t say you’re not my friends, because no one is going to tell me who my friends are.” Skelton’s audience loved it and laughed at it.

His senator was, of course, a make-believe politician, who played all his speeches strictly for laughs. Today’s politicians, as we can see during the current U.S. presidential campaign, have other purposes for their speeches. They want to promote their own innovative policies, and embellish their own accomplishments while minimizing those of their opponents. The candidates want to impress people with their character, convictions and courage. They want to get votes.

Still, in the intense, frenetic competition for the White House, the candidates manage to squeeze in a touch of humor. Senator Hillary Clinton wryly observed, “If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle.” When reporters informed Barack Obama that research indicated he might be an eighth cousin of Vice President Dick Cheney, he quipped, “I don’t want to be invited to the family hunting party.” Mike Huckabee noted during one debate, “We’ve had a Congress that’s spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop.”

The use of wit to capture the voting audience is a time-honored, proven strategy. Abraham Lincoln skillfully used quips and humorous anecdotes during his campaigns. At one debate, his opponent spoke first, and frequently referred to Lincoln as a “two-faced politician.”

When Lincoln spoke in rebuttal, he said, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” This solid one-liner negated his rival’s attack and won the respect of many listeners. 

                    "Lincoln knew that if people remembered the joke, they
                    would remember the point that the joke illustrated."

Lincoln continued his masterful use of humor, not only throughout his presidential campaign but also into his presidency. Some of his colleagues felt the president trivialized his office and also the plight of the war-torn nation with what they called his “buffoonery.” Lincoln, though, explained that he didn’t tell amusing tales merely for applause or entertainment; he claimed that a well-conceived, appropriate vignette could often reduce a complex situation to something his listeners would relate to and easily understand. He used humor wisely, not only to make a point, but to illustrate that point.

John F. Kennedy had an inventive sense of humor. Once a reporter who flew on the campaign trail with JFK asked what might happen if this plane suddenly went down. Kennedy said, “Tomorrow your name will be in the paper.” Then he added, “In very small print.”

After Kennedy narrowly won the presidency, reporters asked why he thought the election was so close. Kennedy, who came from a prominent, wealthy family, said, “Well, I didn’t want my Daddy to pay for a landslide.”

One of the most powerful and effective one-liners in political history was spoken by Ronald Reagan. It happened during Reagan’s re-election campaign against Walter Mondale. Mondale and others noted that if elected, Reagan would become the oldest U.S. president in history; they wondered if he were hardy and capable enough to endure the rigors of that office. At one of the pre-election debates, a panelist asked a question that was really a veiled reference to Reagan’s advancing age. Reagan responded with, “I realize that age is a factor in this campaign. I refuse to exploit for political purposes the youth and inexperience of my opponent.”

The audience roared. Mondale chuckled at the reply. The next morning Reagan’s line was quoted on the front page of almost every newspaper in the country. After that one-liner, the age complaint became a total non-issue.

As a comedy writer, I’ve furnished appropriate gags to several U.S. politicians, including Vice Presidents Hubert Humphrey and Spiro Agnew, and Ronald Reagan. As Bob Hope’s head writer, I penned many lines kidding former President Gerald Ford and his occasionally wayward golf game. When Ford retired and moved to Palm Springs, Hope said, “There are 86 golf courses in the Palm Springs area and Jerry Ford never knows which one he’s going to play until his second shot.” He added, “It’s easy to keep score when you play with President Ford. You just look back along the fairway and count the wounded.”

I met President Ford at a party at Bob Hope’s house and confessed to him that I had written those lines. He said to me, “Write more. I steal those lines and use them in my talks.” He appreciated the value of humor.

Even though campaigning for president – or any office – can be an aggressive showdown, a judicious sprinkling of humor can be effective. In fact, it might be beneficial for anyone who wants to impress an audience from the podium.

Humor creates likeability: In my career in comedy, I’ve often heard people say of some comic or another, “Oh, I don’t think he’s funny. I don’t like him.” If you don’t like a person, it’s hard to laugh along with him or her. Conversely, though, we do tend to like people who make us laugh. That’s one reason many experts advise speakers to open a presentation with a humorous tale. It gets a laugh; it gets the audience to bond with the speaker.

Humor earns credibility: You often hear the phrase, “The wit and wisdom of…” It’s almost axiomatic that wit produces wisdom; wisdom begets wit. Wit and wisdom generate respect from an audience. Being able to joke about a topic convinces the listeners that you know that topic. You know what you’re talking about. You’re worth listening to. Every candidate wants the people not only to listen to him or her, but to believe what the candidate says is factual. Every speaker wants the audience to say to themselves, “This person is worth my attention.”

Humor earns respect: People like to be kidded. They also appreciate anyone who can laugh at his or her own expense. When you kid with other people, it’s a sign that you realize who they are and what they’re about. Those listeners will respect you for that. Poking fun at yourself proves to them you don’t take yourself or your work too seriously. You’re sending a signal that you are one with your listeners. They and you are more alike than different. That earns respect, too.

Humor gets people to listen: People enjoy a clever, witty, wise remark. You can spot that when you listen to political debates. As soon as one candidate says something sharp, the audience responds with laughter and often appreciative applause. It perks them up. Now they don’t want to miss any more of your “gems.” Hence, they listen more attentively. What candidate – and what speaker – doesn’t want more of that sort of power? Each of us wants to grab our audience, excite them, and then hold them for the duration of our talk. A sprinkling of humor can accomplish that.

Humor helps listeners remember: Nothing a candidate says during a campaign speech, nothing a speaker proclaims from the lectern, is worth anything if the listeners leave that message in the hall when they depart. Candidates, and we speakers, want people to not only be impressed with our salient points today, but also to remember them tomorrow. That’s one reason why Lincoln was such a practitioner of the humorous story. He knew that if people remembered the joke, they would remember the point that the joke illustrated.

The candidates realize that if people like them, believe them, respect them, listen to their message and remember what they say, then there’s a good chance they may vote for them. We speakers, too, want folks to like us, believe us, respect us, listen to our presentation and take something home from our lectures.

Like the candidates, speakers can profit from a judicious use of humor.

Gene Perret has won several Emmys for his work on The Carol Burnett Show. He was Bob Hope’s head writer for 12 years and has written many books about humor. Contact him at .

Wit & Wisdom 

By Fred Shapiro

“The real leader has no need to lead – he is content to point the way.” 
            – Henry Miller, The Wisdom of the Heart (1947)

“All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time.” 
            – John Kenneth Galbraith, The Age of Uncertainty (1977)

“Blessed are the people whose leaders can look destiny in the eye without flinching but also without attempting to play God.” 
            – Henry Kissinger, Years of Upheaval (1982)

“Leadership consists not in degrees of technique but in traits of character; it requires moral rather than athletic or intellectual effort, and it imposes on both leader and follower alike the burdens of self-restraint.” 
            – Lewis H. Lapham, Money and Class in America (1988)

“The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on... The genius of a good leader is to leave behind him a situation which common sense, without the grace of genius, can deal with successfully.” 
            – Walter Lippmann, “Roosevelt Is Gone” (1 945)

“The most important quality in a leader is that of being acknowledged as such.” 
            – Andre Maurois, The Art of Living (1940)

“You cannot be a leader, and ask other people to follow you, unless you are willing to follow, too.” 
            – Sam Rayburn, Quoted in The Leadership of Speaker Sam Rayburn (1961)

“Perhaps in His wisdom the Almighty is trying to show us that a leader may chart the way, may point out the road to lasting peace, but that many leaders and many peoples must do the building.” 
            – Eleanor Roosevelt, Syndicated newspaper column, April 16, 1945

“There is no such thing as a perfect leader either in the past or present, in China or elsewhere. If there is one, he is only pretending, like a pig inserting scallions into its nose in an effort to look like an elephant.” 
            – Liu Shao-Ch’i, Quoted in Stanley Karnow, Mao and China (1972)

Compiled by Fred Shapiro, editor of Yale Book of Quotations and an associate librarian and lecturer at Yale Law School. Reach him at