July 6 was the natal day of the late comedian Pat Paulsen (1927-1997).
Paulsen was famous for his dry-as-a-bone, almost funereal deadpan, just this side of Eeyore, but this was on top of another layer of persona, that of an average middle class American. Paulsen himself was working class. His father was a Norwegian immigrant who worked for the Coast Guard. The family lived in a small fishing village in Washington State until he was 10, then moved to Mill Valley, California in the greater San Francisco area. Paulsen served in the Marines in the final days of World War 2, then worked at a succession of menial jobs (truck driver, clerk, door-to-door salesman) while attending San Francisco City College.
In the early 1960s he began performing comedy and folk music in San Francisco coffee houses and nightclubs, which is how and where he met the Smothers Brothers, who became his ticket to fame. When The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour premiered in 1967, Paulsen was hired as a writer and cast member and his bits (parodies of television political commentary segments from news programs) immediately became one of the highlights of the show.
The contrast between the absurd and/or bumbling things that came out of Paulsen’s mouth and his extremely serious, hangdog face was comedy gold to anyone with any listening skills. Not to put too fine a point on it, he looked and sounded just like the square politicians and powerful journalists of the day. And as the Vietnam War began to heat up, many of them were contorting themselves into their own verbal and logical pretzels. Paulsen’s craziness seemed a true reflection of the craziness that was then going on. His popularity with audiences then led to guest shots on other shows such as The Monkees, Get Smart and The Wild, Wild West, further raising his visibility. He was also a regular on the very first season of Sesame Street!
In 1968 came the first iteration of his best known work of political performance art, and what he would forever be best known for. He ran a comedy campaign for President, complete with buttons, posters, yard signs, personal appearances, TV spots, the works. As readers of this blog know, this was not unprecedented. Both W.C. Fields and Gracie Allen had their own comedy campaigns for the highest office in the land. But those were more like interactions with their own well-established personae, the joke being how inappropriate they were as politicians. They were gently satirical but no more than that. But Paulsen’s entire persona was a parody of a politician. This was much more devastating. This was comedy cutting with a scalpel, not a slapstick.
Smarter politicians of the day played along. Here he is with Bobby Kennedy, who seems to be playing it straight here himself:
Think about it. 1968 was such a crazy, gonzo, horrible year in Presidential politics. LBJ slunk away in disgrace; the Democrats’ Chicago convention was a nightmare of chaos, protest and violence; RFK was assassinated; and the Yippies (Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Paul Krassner et al) ran an actual pig, named “Pigasus” for President. Think of it — Pat Paulsen was doing his schtick in the middle of all that, and it did not get lost in the shuffle. It seemed to be a commentary on it.
People loved it. There was a hit comedy record Pat Paulsen for President in 1968, and then he ran later comedy campaigns in 1972, 1976, 1980, 1988, 1992, and 1996. Many of these years, Paulsen polled impressively well as a protest vote against the actual politicians. And he sowed seeds of influence. I’m quite certain that Robert Altman’s Tanner ’88 and Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts (1992) are on some level loving homages.
By the way, Paulsen had a great life and career outside these crazy campaigns. He continued performing comedy in nightclubs. In 1970 he released his second record album Live at the Ice House, and had his own ABC comedy variety show Pat Paulsen’s Half a Comedy Hour. In 1971 just for fun he started his own winery Pat Paulsen Vineyards and began performing in annual summer stock productions. And he continued to get roles in films and tv shows through the early ’90s. A particular highlight was the 1978 TV movie Harper Valley PTA with Barbara Eden, Louis Nye, Ronnie Cox, Nanette Fabray, John Fiedler, etc — I watched that one when it premiered!
In 1995 Paulsen was diagnosed with a cancer that rapidly metastasized from his colon to his brain and lymph nodes. He died two years later while undergoing alternative treatment in Mexico. But there are ways in which he has never died, in fact cannot die. People STILL write in his name on Presidential ballots, and they STILL joke that he would be better than the present occupant of the White House. In 2016, for the first time in history, that previously humorous statement became nightmarishly true.