The election of Ronald Reagan established that an actor could become president. Now, how about a comedian? Our critic Bob Mondello says the new movie Man of the Year suggests such a campaign would be less amusing than you might imagine.

BOB MONDELLO: Here's the setup - a late-night comic with a fake-news show decides to run for president and, to the dismay of his campaign team, tries to do it without telling jokes. The court jester wants to be taken seriously.

(Soundbite of movie, "Man of the Year")

Mr. ROBIN WILLIAMS (Actor): (As Tom Dobbs) They got me in because of my seriousness of purpose. They saw that, and that's why we're in this debate.

Unidentified Man #1: Serious talk puts us to sleep.

Mr. LEWIS BLACK (Comedian): What was the last time any human being, any American, watched a debate and went oh, God! Did you hear what he said?

Unidentified Man #2: I believe he talked about fiscal politics.

MONDELLO: I'm not sure I believe that a successful comedian would be so clueless about his appeal, but let's say he is, just for the sake of the movie's best scene, in which the candidate, played by Robin Williams, changes his mind about being serious in the middle of a televised debate, and more or less turns it into a standup comedy slam.

(Soundbite of movie, "Man of the Year")

(Soundbite of crowd of people)

Mr. WILLIAMS: Anybody who's ever been married knows it's always the same sex.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Woman #1: Mr. Dobbs. Mr. Dobbs, please.

MR. WILLIAMS: This is his practice. They point over here, they point over there. They want you not to know. You know that amendment to the Constitution to burning the flag? Make it out of asbestos. No one will want to touch the thing.

MONDELLO: Okay, there it is, that's what you paid for. After the debate, though, the joke is on the movie audience because just as the candidate changes his mind and goes for funny, director Barry Levinson changes his and turns the picture into a thriller about corporate whistle blowing - something about a computer glitch that threatens the stock price of a voting machine company. Do we care? No, at least not as much as we do about a prankster leading the free world.

Part of the problem, clearly, is expectations, set up by both the ads, which feature Robin Williams in a powdered wig, and by the fact that Levinson made a much smarter political comedy a decade ago called Wag the Dog. That one also was constructed as a thriller, but it didn't star a comedian, and it didn't spring from what is essentially a pretty old joke.

Real comedians have run for president. Pat Paulsen did it back in 1968, and he was copying Gracie Allen, who ran in 1940 as the Surprise Party candidate. Yes, the popularity of Jon Stewart gives the notion a new hook, but the movie's shtick isn't nearly as edgy as The Daily Show's.

(Soundbite of movie, "Man of the Year")

Unidentified Woman #2: Have you given any thought to what the makeup of your Cabinet might be?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I've looked at the Ikea catalogue and didn't see anything I liked, but I'm hoping for maybe a dark walnut with a nice veneer.

MONDELLO: Bland and safe, as if the filmmakers are determined to make their Man of the Year appeal to red staters and blue staters alike, politics as usual and less than thrilling, whether you're courting laughs or courting votes.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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