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In time, President William Jefferson Clinton may take some small comfort in the knowledge that the relentless barrage of Bubba jokes hurled his way is not entirely personal. It’s little more than the American public’s means of working out complicated feelings about its leaders. Or maybe it is personal. Either way, Judy Edelhoff wants to get to the bottom of this unbridled japery.
Edelhoff is the producer of the National Archives’ lecture series and has organized a colloquy on the topic, “Humor and the Presidency.” At first glance, it might seem a subject too obvious for discussion. What will set this event apart from the usual dry oration, though, is that Edelhoff has commissioned a presentation of presidential skits drawn from two decades of Saturday Night Live shows. As an added bonus, SNL writer/producer Al Franken and head writer Jim Downey will be on hand to illuminate and/or defend their cheeky snipes.
The event’s timing is not entirely coincidental, as Houghton Mifflin has just released Saturday Night Live: The First Twenty Years, a handsome coffee-table tome edited by Michael Cader and featuring abundant photographs by Edie Baskin.
Despite the amusement, this is, after all, Washington, and Edelhoff is quite serious about examining “why the president is so much a target for humor. Look at the news,” she says. “It’s much more tied in to the president than [to] Congress.”
Laughing at the top dog is a theme Edelhoff has pondered since coming to the Archives in 1987. In the past, she has brought in such mirth experts as editorial cartoonists to offer insights on how to properly convey the emperor’s buck-nekkidness.
Edelhoff’s interest in the subject took shape when work at the Folger Shakespeare Library exposed her to citizens who were “intimidated by history.” In Edelhoff’s view, knowledge and understanding can be gained in ways other than by straining at eight-point text. “Costumes, sculpture, theater, there are all kinds of things you can explore so that you don’t have to be intimidated,” she contends.
Edelhoff was aware of the anniversary book, unable to miss the megahype attending it at a recent American Booksellers Association convention. At first, she felt, “It had nothing to do with us. Then I thought, “Hey, wait….’ ”
And so a call was placed to the creative warrens inside 30 Rock. Unsure of the reaction, Edelhoff was surprised at how receptive Franken and company were to the idea.
After 20 years, it’s easy to forget that SNL was once revolutionary, that its sharp and smart political broadsides were the most obvious of its affronts to the taste of the times. Edelhoff finds it “pretty remarkable” that the show has survived, and will not join the crowd that believes its glory days are over. “When people say, “Ho-ho-hum, it’s not what it used to be,’ well it can’t be what it used to be. We’ve changed as a society and it’s changed, as it must,” she says, adding admiringly, “The folks at SNL must have their fingers on the pulse of who we are.”
While Edelhoff doesn’t know which skits the SNL pulse-feelers will include, she has her favorites. “Certain ones stand out in my mind over the years,” she says, immediately mentioning the infamous “Final Days” sketch, featuring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as Nixon and Kissinger rattling around the White House the night before the resignation:
Nixon: “I’m telling you, Henry: I had nothing to do with the bugging of Watergate; I had nothing to do with the cover-up, with the breaking into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, or with the man who was killed in Florida.”
Kissinger: “Vhat man vas killed in Florida, Mr. President?”
Nixon: “You don’t know about the little Cuban who…ah, never mind, Henry, get down on your knees and pray with me.”
Originally broadcast May 8, 1976, it still reads funny. Of course, Nixon provided a perfect, and unsympathetic, target. But all this laughing at is not without compassion.
“Poor Gerald Ford,” says Edelhoff. “Chevy Chase really made his name with Gerald Ford.” True enough. In fact, Ford also held a symposium on humor and the presidency several years ago, at which Chase appeared. (This event remains—correct me if I’m wrong—the singular public-relations effort on Ford’s part since leaving office.)
In the SNL anniversary book, Chase recounts that a member of the Ford family told him how hurtful his stumblebum pratfall impressions were to the former footballer chief exec. “But I figured,” recalls Chase, “ “Oh, well, he’s the president, he can take it, he has to, he’s a public figure.’ Of course, now my feelings have been hurt so much, I know exactly what he means.”
As Edelhoff points out, sometimes the jokes are merely funny, but “sometimes it’s a little bit vicious.” The humor can also be insightful. “ “Dukakis After Dark’ was an interesting skit that was done,” continues Edelhoff, with some understatement. Just mentioning that delightfully alliterative phrase paints a mental picture that goes a long way to explaining why no Greek immigrant’s son has ever hung his hat at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
A good example of why such seminars are justified is President Carter’s recent resurrection. Edelhoff notes the “bruising” the ex-peanut farmer took while in office, but now “a lot of people are taking a second look.”
Those anxious to take a second look at the video compilation may be out of luck. It is unclear whether the presidential collection will be released to the general public.
What lessons can we learn from all this mockery? Edelhoff doesn’t expect attendees to come away with a full retrospective on American history. Instead, she hopes it will provide a spark, that someone may crack a book or two and investigate further.
“My hope is that people will want to read a lot and not feel like I did when I was in high school,” says the professional archivist. “I thought history was a crashing bore.”
“Humor and the Presidency” is free and will be held at noon, Tuesday, Oct. 25, in the National Archives Theater, 7th & Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Call (202) 501-5000 for further information.