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The Dance of the Comedians

The People, the President, and the Performance of Political Standup Comedy in America

Peter M. Robinson

Publication Year: 2010

Why did Barack Obama court Jon Stewart and trade jokes with Stephen Colbert during the campaign of 2008? Why did Sarah Palin forgo the opportunity to earn votes on the Sunday morning political talk shows but embrace the chance to get laughs on Saturday Night Live? The Dance of the Comedians examines the history behind these questions—the merry, mocking, and highly contested anarchies of standup political comedy that have locked humorists, presidents, and their fellow Americans in an improvisational three-way “dance” since the early years of the American republic. Peter M. Robinson shows how the performance of political humor developed as a celebration of democracy and an expression of political power, protest, and commercial profit. He places special significance on the middle half of the twentieth century, when presidents and comedians alike—from Calvin Coolidge to Ronald Reagan, from Will Rogers to Saturday Night Live’s “Not Ready for Prime Time Players”—developed modern understandings of the power of laughter to affect popular opinion and political agendas, only to find the American audience increasingly willing and able to get in on the act. These years put the long-standing traditions of presidential deference profoundly in play as all three parties to American political humor—the people, the presidents, and the comedy professionals—negotiated their way between reverence for the office of the presidency and ridicule of its occupants. Although the focus is on humor, The Dance of the Comedians illuminates the process by which Americans have come to recognize that the performance of political comedy has serious and profound consequences for those on all sides of the punch line.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Series: Culture, Politics, and the Cold War


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List of Illustrations

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p. ix

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pp. xi-xii

I am grateful to the many people whose expertise, patience, and good humor helped to make this book possible. First, the guidance and encouragement extended by the History Department at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, were extraordinary. I am particularly grateful to Andrew Cayton, William Doan, Sheldon Anderson, and Peggy Shaffer, who improved this project ...

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Prologue: “I’m not kidding”

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pp. 1-14

Without warning to her audience, and with even her husband uncertain of exactly what was coming, first lady Laura Bush took the stage and stole the show at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on April 30, 2005. In a performance widely applauded by supporters and critics on both sides of the culture wars, Mrs. Bush made ...

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1. An American Company of Comedians

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pp. 15-36

Not long after the election of 1860 Artemus Ward paid a visit to Abraham Lincoln at his home in Springfield, Illinois. The courtesy call by America’s favorite humorist on the “President eleck of the United States” was bedlam from the outset, and the zany confusion for readers was hilariously compounded by the frayed homespun dialect that Ward used to ...

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2. Dance Partners

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pp. 37-56

If Charles Browne was the first meteor of standup comedy to appear over the American landscape, Samuel Clemens was the comet. While Browne’s fame as Artemus Ward was as brilliant as it was short-lived, Clemens’s as Mark Twain burned on into the twentieth century, and his humor came to be celebrated by the nation and much of the world as ...

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3. A Presidential Crinoline

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pp. 57-98

Will Rogers was unique. At first the arrival in 1904 of the funny, disarming, and oddly enchanting cowboy, whose show business debut coincided with the cresting popularity of vaudeville, did not augur any profound change in the state of the nation’s humor or the relationship between the American people and their president. During the next three decades ...

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4. New Frontiers

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pp. 99-138

The Remarkable connection between the most significant political comedian of the twentieth century, Will Rogers, and its most powerful president, Franklin Roosevelt, began to cement the relationship between the presidency and comedy performance in the minds of many Americans. Both men were agents and beneficiaries of the boom in ...

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5. All Lies and Jest

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pp. 139-189

The first days and months after John F. Kennedy’s assassination were as unkind to political standup comedy as they were to the grieving nation as a whole. The First Family was removed from store shelves, as was a sequel, which had been released in the spring of 1963. The horrors in Dallas prompted the albums’ producers to call Cadence Records and ask that all ...

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6. Rebellion by the Pound

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pp. 190-214

"I hear that whenever someone in the White House tells a lie, Nixon gets a royalty.” By the fall of 1973 Johnny Carson’s jabs at the president of the United States were becoming more constant and merciless as the deepening Watergate investigation pointed decidedly toward Richard Nixon’s personal criminal involvement. In one monologue that autumn ...

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Epilogue: Back to the Future

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pp. 215-227

On April 17, 2008, Stephen Colbert broadcast his half-hour satiric send-up of political infotainment, The Colbert Report, from the birthplace of American democratic government: Philadelphia. In the wake of the latest debate between the Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination, and just prior to that month’s Pennsylvania primary, all the ...


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pp. 229-249


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pp. 251-257

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760376
E-ISBN-10: 161376037X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558497337
Print-ISBN-10: 1558497331

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Culture, Politics, and the Cold War
Series Editor Byline: Christian Appy See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 793341705
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Dance of the Comedians

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American wit and humor -- History.
  • Presidents -- United States -- Public opinion -- History.
  • Public opinion -- United States -- History.
  • Presidents -- United States -- Humor -- History.
  • Political satire, American -- History and criticism.
  • Stand-up comedy -- United States -- History.
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