Political Humor Break

Classic Clips from Our Political Comedy Heritage

By David Bushman

"I had a meeting with the entire membership of the Amalgamated Consolidated Negro Republicans—three of the nicest guys you'd ever want to meet. And we joined forces with the New Black Democrats, and the five of us went over, we went over and we challenged the joint session of Congress on minority inclusion. We asked them straightforward: 'Is there hope?' We said, 'Can a Negro ever become president?' They said, 'Yes, if he runs against a Puerto Rican.'"
—Nipsey Russell, The Jackie Gleason Show, 1969

Political Humor Break Continues...

Thirty-nine years later, Nipsey Russell's joke about a black president seems either prescient or obsolete—I'm not sure which. For those of us who best remember Russell as the jolly "poet laureate of television," popping up on game shows and Dean Martin celebrity roasts, who knew he even cared? With satire all over the airwaves these days—from Tina Fey's Sarah Palin impersonations to the faux newscasts of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to the recent report that even CNN is getting into the act with a new show starring comedian D. L. Hughley—it seemed a good time to look back at the history of political humor on television and remember some of the pioneers: Bob Hope, Mort Sahl, Johnny Carson, and the Smothers Brothers.

And so we are reminded that satire and television have weathered some turbulent seas. True, Hope's puffball, "nondenominational" one-liners ruffled no one's feathers, and Carson's cool, calm Midwestern demeanor (and huge popularity, lining NBC's pockets with millions) earned him leeway, but the Sahl/Lenny Bruce-driven comedic revolution was mostly not televised, and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour crashed and burned over battles with network censors. (At the 2008 Emmy Awards, the TV establishment repented by awarding Tommy Smothers an honorary statuette and standing ovation.)

While it's tempting to look around at all the political humor on the airwaves today and state unequivocally that warfare of the CBS-Smothers Brothers variety is a thing of the past, it was just seven years ago that Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher was raked over the coals for his post-9/11 response to Bush's characterization of the terrorists as cowards. Who knows what will happen during the next crisis?

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