Humor A Key Part Of Presidential Campaign Toolbox

Appearances on late night TV have become a go-to campaign tool for presidential candidates looking to soften their image. But the candidate who arguably first turned late-night comedy into an effective platform was Richard Nixon in 1968. Audie Cornish talks with the producer from the comedy classic Laugh In about how the Nixon appearance came to be.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A successful national campaign calls for all sorts of tricks of the trade. And so, until Tuesday November 6th, the presidential candidates will bombard us with mail, texts, photo-ops, negative ads, robocalls and every other tool you can think of. All this week, we're going to explore the campaign toolbox - where did these tricks come from and how are they used? Today, using humor by appearing on TV comedy shows. Here's just a sample of aspiring presidents showing their lighter sides, starting with Bill Clinton's 1992 appearance on the "Arsenio Hall Show."

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: You know what your drummer said?

ARSENIO HALL: What?

CLINTON: He said, If this music thing doesn't work out, you can always run for president.

(LAUGHTER)

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Barack Obama purchased airtime on three major networks. We, however, can only afford QVC.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID LETTERMAN: Have you ever actually put lipstick on a pig?

(LAUGHTER)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, the...

LETTERMAN: Uh-oh.

OBAMA: The answer would be no.

(LAUGHTER)

MITT ROMNEY: That's Barbara Bush. She is one of a long line of terrific first ladies. And Michelle Obama, also - a wonderful first lady.

JAY LENO: And both of them could beat you arm wrestling.

ROMNEY: I'm not sure about that.

CORNISH: These days, these sorts of TV appearance are standard on the campaign trail. But go back to the 1960s, they weren't. The first time a candidate appeared on a comedy show was September 1968. Richard Nixon went on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" and uttered the shows famous catch phrase.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: Sock it to me?

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: George Slaughter was the show's producer and creator. He told us the story of getting candidate Nixon on "Laugh-In."

GEORGE SLAUGHTER: One of the writers on "Laugh-In" was a man by the name of Paul Keyes who was Richard Nixon's closest friend and joke writer. And we had done one season that was highly successful and we wanted to do something to open the second season. And Paul said, why don't we go see if we can get Nixon?

We went over to CBS where he was taping a press conference. And Paul went over and talked to him and said: We're doing this show, "Laugh-In," and in this show the running gag is Sock It To Me. And so, Richard Nixon said: You want me to say sock it to me? And he said, yeah, it's one we do in every show. So Nixon said all right. So we put a camera on him and he said go ahead. He said: Sock it to me.

And he said: Oh, no. No, Mr. Nixon, if you could just kind of smile and say sock it to me. He said: I've got it. This comedy thing is new for me, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

SLAUGHTER: And so, he said suck it to me. And I said one more time. So we did about six takes until we got something where you really look kind of cute and, you know, warm when he said...

NIXON: Sock it to me?

(LAUGHTER)

SLAUGHTER: And we ran out of their porch climbers back to NBC and edited into the show, and the rest is history. He said that elected him.

CORNISH: It seems so easy now. I mean, were there any reservations on the part of the show or on the part of the campaign?

SLAUGHTER: The campaign was really nervous about it. They tried to talk them out of it. And the show was - we were doing political satire, so we thought it would be great. And the nervousness was at the network and with the - see, we have equal time then. And you had to give equal time to anybody, politically. Well, we got...

CORNISH: And these were federal laws saying you had to...

SLAUGHTER: Yes, that was the law was equal time. However, since it was under five seconds and it was a nonpolitical appearance, we were able to get it through and this was the first thing of its kind.

CORNISH: Now, to you, what are the ingredients that makes for good comedy show appearance by a candidate?

SLAUGHTER: Well, it's changed a lot now, you know. Now they have writers and they have rehearsals and they prepare, and they come in all ready to go with a set of comments to make that are written and prepared. And that is very, very effective because it's a chance for them to be seen in the mainstream. And it's a chance for them to be seen as themselves in a relaxed kind of atmosphere, with someone who is friendly towards them.

CORNISH: So at this point it sounds like a go-to...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...sort of technique for the candidate.

SLAUGHTER: Yes. But when a presidential candidate goes on, they're risking, you know, I mean what if it isn't funny?

(LAUGHTER)

SLAUGHTER: And what if the comic does not treat you fairly? So, it's a two edge sword. You've got to be very careful. Humor is dangerous.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Well, George Slaughter, thank you so much for telling us this story.

SLAUGHTER: Can you use any of this at all, my darling?

CORNISH: I can. I can, trust me.

(LAUGHTER)

SLAUGHTER: OK.

CORNISH: Spoken like a true TV producer. George Slaughter, the creator of "Laugh-In," talking about Richard Nixon's appearance on the show in 1968.

And tomorrow, we dig back into the campaign toolbox for tool that's a lot less silly but just as important, the phone bank.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: