Comedy and politics have become so intertwined; it’s easy to forget there was a time when they were separate like church and state. Sure, comedians made cracks about politicians — especially the President — but the politicians mostly ignored them.
Then on September 16, 1968, Richard Nixon went on "Laugh-In."
“Yeah, it was not good,” said Allison Dagnes the author of "A Conservative Walks Into a Bar: The Politics of Political Humor," referring to Nixon’s wooden performance.
But Nixon got credit for showing up, and being a good sport. “Once it was shown that a politician could make fun of themselves without then becoming the butt of everybody else’s joke,” she says, “and at the same time reach a huge segment of the American voting public, that is a very attractive little combination right there.”
When "Saturday Night Live" went on the air in 1975, creator Lorne Michaels wanted to have politicians and other civilians on the show regularly. But writer Jim Downey says the pols were skittish. He pitched an idea to New York City Mayor Ed Koch about a fake get-tough on graffiti program, except the city would just spray-paint “sucks” under each tag. “And Koch said, I’m not going to say ‘sucks.’ I’m not going to say that!” Downey remembers.
But a few years later, they pitched the same idea to Rudy Giuliani.
"SNL" was doing something so powerful, politicians couldn’t ignore the show: devastating impersonations. Other comics were doing spot-on vocal impressions, but the "SNL" impressions had real satirical bite.
When Norm McDonald was hosting "Weekend Update," Downey wrote a series of sketches where Bill Clinton — played by Darrell Hammond — reviewed movies whenever the president was a character. In two of these movies, the First Lady was dead. And the films got a thumbs up from faux-Clinton.
After Monica Lewinsky, that would’ve been an obvious joke. But this was a few years earlier. “To me it was more fun at the insulation that we were basically saying, 'come on. You know! You know this is going on!'” Downey says.
He also worked with Darrell Hammond when Al Gore ran for president, particularly on the former Vice President’s phrasing, which Downey thought was “sort of the way you’d talk to a child.”
Many people — including Will Ferrell who played George W. Bush — have said those sketches may have swayed voters away from Gore.
Dagnes says "SNL" goes for the personal stuff that could sway swing voters, not policy positions. “Most people don’t care about politics,” she says. “In order to make fun of the biggest politicians in America, you have to pick on the things that are the most recognizable.”
But then Comedy Central came along and showed you can do bits about the tax code. "The Daily Show’s" audience is smaller than "SNL" — but fiercely loyal. Jon Stewart was able to do segments on policy issues, or turn a semi-obscure politician like Mitch McConnell into major targets.
“Something with a stronger point of view will make more of an emotional connection," says "Daily Show" Executive Producer Steve Bodow. “And things that get passed around in social media more often.”
But he does worry about preaching to the choir. In fact, a lot of political comedians dread something they call "clapter" — when the audience claps more than it laughs, because you’ve made a point they agree with.
But the biggest surprise in political comedy happened during the 2008 election. At a fundraiser, Barack Obama didn’t just tell a few jokes. He did stand-up.
“I think Obama’s probably our funniest president,” says "SNL" writer Downey. “He’s funny in a very unusual way for a politician, which is that he’s perfectly happy to do dry, to do deadpan, which scares the beejesus out of most politicians because they need to be certain that everyone’s going to know it’s a joke.”
When Obama got bad press over the disastrous rollout of Healthcare.gov, he sidestepped the mainstream media by showing up on comedy shows, like Zach Galifianakis’s web series, "Between Two Ferns."
"Daily Show" producer Bodow was impressed. Obama nailed his part as the straight man.
So now we have a president who can land a joke and do a bit. But have we gone from awkwardly painful to something a little too cozy?
“Jon [Stewart] used to say when we leave here we leave with no friends,” says Bodow.