In the late 1940s Alan Funt invented a radio show called Candid Microphone. The program transitioned to the new medium of television as Candid Camera. Alan Funt’s son Peter carries on the Candid Camera tradition as the program resurfaces periodically.
Peter Funt just published “Playing POTUS - the Power of America’s ‘Acting Presidents’.“ It examines a fairly recent phenomenon: presidential mimicry. During the 1930s the humorist Will Rogers dabbled with presidential impersonations of FDR although it didn’t become a thing until John F. Kennedy.
Vaughn Meader performed captivating vocal impressions of JFK and recorded a record album, “The First Family,” that featured Meader impersonating the president. It was an adoring tribute to a popular leader. The record went on to sell millions, more than any comedy album ever.
Funt reveals Meader’s career doing Kennedy impressions collapsed following JFK’s assassination. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, was a different story. LBJ was eminently more mockable. Comedians began doing impressions of him that were scathing as the business of doing presidential impersonation became increasingly negative.
Upon the ascension of Richard M. Nixon in 1968 the art of presidential mockery boomed. Nixon was somewhat reviled. That distaste translated into vicious comedic imitations of the man detractors often called Tricky Dick. David Frye was the most prominent Nixon impersonator.
Nixon resigned in disgrace. And like Meader before him, with the sudden removal of his favorite president to impersonate, David Frye quickly faded away as well. Gerald Ford succeeded Nixon around the time Saturday Night Live debuted and the comedian Chevy Chase began lampooning Ford on SNL.
The author observes that unlike many presidential imitators who looked and/or sounded like the person being represented, Chase made zero effort to sound or look like Ford. Instead he relied on one repetitive gag; that Ford was supposedly clumsy. He really wasn’t clumsy. Chase as Ford would trip over something then pronounce they were live from New York, etc. Hilarity commenced, at Ford’s expense.
Some historians point to Chase’s pratfalls imitating him as one reason why Ford failed to get re-elected. In 1976 Jimmy Carter became president. He was another one they loved skewering. The same went for the man who followed Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan.
Then came Bill Clinton, his lascivious escapades delivered comedy gold for impersonators. According to Peter Funt, things changed a lot for impressionists with the election of Barack Obama because comedians often felt uneasy making fun of the first Black president.
Funt makes the case Donald Trump was more imitated than anybody has ever been. He was quite thin-skinned about it. On SNL Alec Baldwin did Trump impressions while Trump live tweeted his disgust about Baldwin’s portrayals. This stands in stark contrast to the more amiable George H.W. Bush, who embraced his most notable imitator, Dana Carvey, and actually befriended him.
Like Obama, Joe Biden seems to be eluding any consistent mimicry. We’ll see how long it lasts. If Trump does get elected president again his impersonators will be hitting the comedy jackpot once again.
Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/programs/book-nook. Contact him at email@example.com.