Saturday Night Live skewered President Obama last weekend in a spoof so merciless — a mock commercial for the antidepressant Paxil — that conservative bloggers found themselves wondering if it marked some kind of a turning point in the president’s political support.
The skit featured impersonator/comedian Jay Pharaoh as Obama, desperately popping pill after pill, while a voiceover lists the many symptoms that “Paxil/Second-Term Strength” is good for: “Benghazi, the NSA scandal, the IRS scandal, the AP scandal, the Petraeus scandal . . . and, of course, Obamacare website problems.” Along the bottom of the screen, the ad cautions that Paxil is not covered by Obamacare. “We promised that it would be, but it’s not,” the fine print notes. “And for that, we apologize.”
SNL may have unloaded on Obama more fiercely than usual — it usually saves its harshest mockery for Republicans — but there was nothing about the sneering tone of the show’s political humor that we haven’t long since learned to take for granted. Even more scathing is the fare regularly dished out on Comedy Central’s late-night “fake news” parodies, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. In our age it has become almost axiomatic that politicians, especially presidents and presidential candidates, can be satirized and ridiculed as nastily as possible.
It was different a half century ago.
In 1962, a 26-year-old stand-up comedian from Maine named Vaughn Meader rocketed to fame and fortune with his uncanny impersonation of President Kennedy. Meader starred in a comedy album, “The First Family,” that became an extraordinary cultural phenomenon and the fastest-selling LP the recording industry had yet seen. “There never has been an album that has broken so many records, or set so many new ones,” Billboard marveled in January 1963, two months after Meader’s record went on sale. Demand for the record soared as high as 1 million a week; all told, 7.5 million copies were sold. “The First Family” won the Grammy for album of the year in 1963. Soon there was a second album, “The First Family, Volume Two.”
Meader’s spoof of the Kennedy family made him rich and popular. There were write-ups in Time, Life, and Newsweek, appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, and bookings in Las Vegas and in clubs around the country. The president himself commented on Meader’s impersonation. Asked at a press conference whether he was annoyed by the comedy album, JFK responded to laughter: “Actually, I listened to Mr. Meader’s record but I thought it sounded more like Teddy than it did me — so he’s annoyed.”
Meader’s career effectively ended on Nov. 22, 1963; the murder of the president he had imitated for laughs instantly made him radioactive. His club act was canceled; the albums were pulled from store shelves; he was disinvited from the 1964 Grammy Awards show. It was thanks to his talents that presidential mimicry became a permanent element of modern American culture. But by the time he died in 2004, Vaughn Meader was largely forgotten.
Audiences whose idea of comedians taking shots at the president has been shaped by Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show would be astonished to learn how gentle, even affectionate, Meader’s jibes were. “The First Family” had no jokes about the Bay of Pigs fiasco or the questionable origins of the Kennedy fortune. There were no skits that involved the president gulping antidepressants. Instead there were skits that involved the president allocating bathtub toys (nine toy PT boats apiece for Caroline and John, but “the rubbah swan is mine!”)
The closest Meader came to hinting that Kennedy may have won the White House with some conveniently stolen votes was a spoof public service announcement: “Go to the polls and vote. Vote for the Kennedy of your choice, but vote!” Even digs at Republicans’ expense barely stung. (Reporter: “When will we send a man to the Moon?” Kennedy: “Whenever Senator Goldwater wants to go.”)
More surprising than the gags on the album, though, might be the note that appeared on the album sleeve: “This album is for fun! Things are being suggested and said here about some of the great people of our time, and perhaps the very fact that they are able to laugh with us . . . is in part what makes them the great people they are.”
Today such a disclaimer would be derided as brownnosing; the whole point of political comedy now is to make all politicians seem fatuous or false. Audiences today laugh just as hard as they did 50 years ago. But the jokes have grown venomous, and they take an implacable toll.Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.