Culture

Did You Hear the One About the 5 Funniest Presidents in History?

Even without speech writers and joke polishers, these guys were genuinely funny.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

U.S. Senator Al Franken from Minnesota recently appeared on David Letterman’s Late Show, and hilariously suggested that Dave run for senator of Indiana once he retires from television next month. Franken, a former performer and writer for Saturday Night Live, correctly noted that comedians running for senatorial office have a 100% success rate (Franken is the only comedian ever to run for senator). Sadly, Dave demurred.

Senators aren’t the only funny fellows running around Washington, DC. President Barack Obama has received high marks in his un-credited role as Comedian-in-Chief. MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell called Obama “the best I have seen.” Another late night host, Jimmy Kimmel, in an interview on C-SPAN, said Obama “could probably be a comedian himself if he wanted to.”

Other recent presidents have tickled the funny bone. Bill Clinton received good reviews, as did George W. Bush, who famously parodied his failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, at the White House Correspondents Association dinner in 2004.

Truthfully, however, Obama, Clinton and Bush are not naturally hilarious people. Those Obama interacts with daily have described the president as a fairly serious person, though with excellent comic timing. The fact is that today’s presidents hire very good joke writers, and they rehearse those jokes before professionals, who polish their performances and make them appear to be great comedians. But there have been some truly funny presidents in our history, men with a natural sense of humor that needed no coaching or polishing. Here are five of our funniest presidents (and three of our un-funniest).

1. Abraham Lincoln

Honest Abe loved a joke. Though maybe corny by today’s standards, his jokes occasionally had a bite to them. Suffering through one particularly long speech, he observed of the orator, “He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas of any man I ever met." In 1842, former President Martin Van Buren stopped in Springfield, Illinois during a western tour. Meeting several politicians, including Lincoln, Van Buren told tales of New York politics and was in turn entertained by his visitors. None entertained him as much as Abe Lincoln. Van Buren later noted that, “his sides were sore with laughing.” It was not always what Lincoln said but how he said it that amused his listeners. Judge David Davis noted, “His countenance and all his features seemed to take part in the performance. As he neared the pith or point of the joke or story every vestige of seriousness disappeared from his face. His little gray eyes sparkled; a smile seemed to gather up, curtain like, the corners of his mouth; his frame quivered with suppressed excitement; and when the point—or 'nub' of the story, as he called it—came, no one's laugh was heartier than his."

Lincoln was also an excellent mimic. "In the role of storyteller, I never knew his equal. His power of mimicry was very great,” said T. G. Onstot. Lincoln used his mimic abilities to political effect. Debating Jesse B. Thomas in 1840, Lincoln "imitated Thomas in gesture and voice, at times caricaturing his walk and the very motions of his body. Thomas, like everybody else, had some peculiarities of expression and gesture, and these Lincoln succeeded in rendering more prominent than ever. The crowd yelled and cheered as he continued. Encouraged by the demonstration, the ludicrous features of the speaker's performance gave way to intense and scathing ridicule. Thomas, who was obliged to sit near by and endure the pain of the unique ordeal, was ordinarily sensitive; but the exhibition goaded him to desperation. He ... actually gave way to tears.... The next day it was the talk of the town, and for years afterwards it was called the 'skinning' of Thomas.”

2. Theodore Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt might have liked to speak softly and carry a big stick, but his sense of humor was hardly soft. Brushing off his Senate critics, Roosevelt once remarked, “When they call the roll in the Senate, the senators do not know whether to answer ‘present’ or ‘not guilty.’” Famous for his physical vitality, his jokes were also quite bully. Roosevelt colorfully described his detractors as “circumcised skunks.” Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris has maintained that Teddy was one of our funniest presidents. Morris told Conan O’Brien that Roosevelt was constantly cracking up those around him, was “acutely funny...constantly bubbling with humor, his letters are to die for.”

In the introduction to a selection of Roosevelt’s writings, Robert Bridges wrote, “No man ever had a more abundant sense of humor—joyous, irrepressible humor—and it never deserted him. Even at the most serious and even perilous moments if there was a gleam of humor anywhere he saw it and rejoiced and helped himself with it over the rough places and in the dark hour. He loved fun, loved to joke and chaff, and, what is more uncommon, greatly enjoyed being chaffed himself.”

3. Calvin Coolidge

For a fellow nicknamed Silent Cal, Calvin Coolidge had a sly, dry sense of humor. There’s the famous exchange he had with a hostess at a gathering:

Hostess: "You must talk to me, Mr. Coolidge. I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you."

Coolidge: "You lose."

He once wrote to his father, who had given him a puppy as a gift, "Your dog is growing well. She has bitten the iceman, the milkman, and the grocerman. It is good to have some way to get even with them for the high prices they charge for everything." Asked by a reporter if he had any hobbies, Cal replied, “I hold office.” A notorious napper, he took daily two-hour snoozes. Upon waking, he would ask his servant, “Is the country still there?”

Never reticent to wear funny hats or costumes, Coolidge’s self-deprecating humor endeared him to the country, and had he run for a second term, he would almost certainly have won. His winning philosophy? “Four-fifths of all our troubles would disappear if we would only sit down and keep still.”

During the 1924 presidential campaign he was asked, “Have you any statement on the campaign?”

“No,” said Coolidge.

“Can you tell us something about the world situation?”

“No."

“Any information about Prohibition?”

“No."

As the reporters left the room, Coolidge called out, “Now remember—don’t quote me.”

4. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Perhaps it was the pain he suffered due to the polio that paralyzed his legs, but Franklin Roosevelt’s sense of humor placed him in the upper echelon of White House funny guys. Wisely, he used his wit to further the policies he championed during the Great Depression. His self-deprecation endeared FDR to the country and helped win support for his New Deal. When Roosevelt became president vin 1932, the country was in the depths of economic ruin. After sending legislation to the Congress to amend the Volstead Act and thus end Prohibition, Roosevelt stated, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.” 

His sense of humor was used to both humanize himself and to encourage Americans to laugh in the face of despair. During one of his Fireside Chats, a series of radio broadcasts he delivered to the American people, FDR told the story of a Maine fisherman with a hearing problem. Told to cut back on his drinking, he ignored the advice. When asked why he would not stop drinking, the fisherman replied, "I liked what I was drinking so much better than what I was hearing [from FDR] that I just kept on drinking." If attention was being drawn to an unwanted topic or to his own disability, FDR often used humor to change the subject. When asked by a reporter what an upcoming Fireside Chat was going to be about, he replied, “About 22 minutes.” As Roosevelt once said, “The overwhelming majority of Americans are possessed of two great qualities, a sense of humor and a sense of proportion.”

5. Ronald Reagan

Atrocious politics aside, the Gipper was a naturally funny guy. After being shot in the chest and nearly assassinated, he said to his wife Nancy, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” While being wheeled into the operating room, Reagan still had time to fire off a joke to his doctors: “I hope you’re all Republicans.” Reagan was known to return speeches to his speechwriters with jokes added in. His sense of humor was ever-present and he could call on it in almost any situation. At one press conference:

Reporter Sam Donaldson: "Mr. President, in talking about the continuing recession tonight, you have blamed mistakes in the past. You have blamed the Congress. Does any of the blame belong to you?"

Reagan: "Yes, because for many years I was a Democrat!"

Reagan wasn’t even beyond ribbing Queen Elizabeth. He was horseback riding with her in 1982, according to former Secretary of State James Baker, when the Queen’s horse let out a loud fart. The Queen apologized to Reagan, who shot back, “I’m glad you told me, or I would have thought it was the horse.”

Un-funniest Presidents:

Benjamin Harrison: So uptight he was often referred to as a “human iceberg,” President Harrison was just not a fun guy. When Teddy Roosevelt calls you a “cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician,” you might as well hang it up.

Richard Nixon: Tricky Dick tried. But the unanimous opinion was that his jokes were awkward and terrible and his audience found themselves laughing simply because he was, well, president of the United States. (Check out Nixon telling a rib tickler.)

James Polk: Having pledged to serve only one term as president, Polk wrote in his diary, “I have now passed through two-thirds of my presidential term and most heartily wish the remaining third was over.” His biographer, Eugene Irving McCormac wrote that, “it is certain that Polk first and foremost lacked charm and magnetism.” A political opponent once quipped of the socially awkward Polk, a virtual teetotaler, “His problem is that he drinks too much water.”

Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on health, science and American history. 
 
 
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