America's Funniest Presidents

And One Who Was Not

Is being “funny” good for politicians? Consider that 100% of professional comedians who have run for the U.S. Senate have been elected. That one—and only —comedian would be Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, who starred on and helped write Saturday Night Live.

When asked his opinion of humor in politics, Sen. Franken once remarked, “Well, a lot of politics is communicating with people, and obviously, humor has something to do with that.”

Throughout America’s history, politicians at all levels of government have used their wit and an often self-deprecating sense of humor to “humanize” and endear themselves to voters.

Even Presidents of the United States, as Commander in Chief of the world’s most powerful military force, have proven that humor is often the best weapon.

For example, Harry Truman, the only president to order the use of nuclear weapons once said of his job: “'You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog.”

Bill Clinton once noted, “Being President is like running a cemetery. You’ve got a lot of people under you and nobody’s listening.”

Though a native of Connecticut, George W. Bush proudly made Texas his adoptive home, proclaiming, “Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas we call ‘walking.’”

While modern presidents often hire professional joke writers and carefully rehearse their “act,” there have been some presidents who were naturally and spontaneously funny.  Here are five presidents who excelled at serving as “Comedian in Chief” and one who certainly did not.

of 06

Abraham Lincoln

Portrait of President Abraham Lincoln
President Abraham Lincoln. Getty Images Archive

Even as Abraham Lincoln wrestled with issues as momentous as the Civil War and slavery, he loved a joke and proved to be a master at using his simple, “log cabin” brand of humor to make his point. After sitting through one particularly long political speech, Lincoln reportedly said of the speaker, “He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas of any man I ever met.”

Acknowledging the resiliency of the American people and their ability to deal with the demands of Post-Civil War Reconstruction, Lincoln stated, “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.”

On slavery, Lincoln observed, “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

To a suggestion that a growing trend for particularly fierce debates in Congress might dissuade people from running for office, Lincoln prophetically responded, “No matter how much cats fight, there always seems to be plenty of kittens.”

When accused of “waffling” on issues, Honest Abe replied, “If I were two faced, would I be wearing this one?”

When questioned for failing to take a position on some contentious issues, Abe responded, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

Having never joined any church, Lincoln was often questioned about his religious beliefs. Raised in a staunchly Baptist home, Abe simply but artfully responded, “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”

Finally, in summarizing his philosophy and perhaps his own legacy, Lincoln said, “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years.”

of 06

Lyndon B. Johnson

President Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird
President Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

While driving the sweeping social reforms of his Great Society program through Congress and despite undergoing withering criticism for his handling of the Vietnam War, President Lyndon B. Johnson continued to display his unique “old Texas rancher” brand of humor.

“Being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm,” Johnson once told a reporter. “There’s nothing to do but to stand there and take it.”

While LBJ’s popularity sank during the Vietnam War, the Southern charm of his First Lady, Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, endeared her to the public. Always keenly aware of the importance of Lady Bird to his political career, Johnson once commented, “Only two things are necessary to keep one's wife happy. One is to let her think she is having her own way, and the other is to let her have it.”

Of her presidential husband, Lady Bird once observed, “Lyndon loved everybody, and more than half the world is women. I do know that he wanted me the most.”

On his struggles with options for the controversial bombing of North Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War, Johnson commented, “The Air Force comes in every morning and says, ‘Bomb, bomb, bomb.’ And then the State Department comes in and says, ‘Not now, or not there, or too much, or not at all.’” 

Awash in a sea of speechmaking during ​the debate over the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, passed as a part of his famed War on Poverty, LBJ observed, “Did you ever think that making a speech on economics is a bit like pissing down your leg? It seems hot to you but it never does to anyone else.”

Perhaps most famously, when asked for a response to the criticism being lodged against him by the media, Johnson replied, “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: ‘President Can't Swim.’”

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Ronald Reagan

President Ronald Reagan
President Ronald Reagan. Dirck Halstead / Getty Images

As a veteran of stage and screen, comedy came naturally to President Ronald Reagan. Also known as “The Gipper” for his portrayal of Notre Dame football player George Gipp in the movie "Knute Rockne, All American," Reagan’s skillful use of satirical humor helped earn him the title, “The Great Communicator.”

Reagan was known for sending drafts of speeches back to his speechwriters – after adding his jokes to them. Even in impromptu situations, Reagan was able to wield his humor.

At one press briefing, reporter Sam Donaldson asked, “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?” To which Reagan – a Republican convert – immediately replied, “Yes, because for many years I was a Democrat.”

Reagan didn’t even hesitate to “mess” with royalty. Former Secretary of State James Baker recalled a day in 1982 when Regan accompanied Queen Elizabeth on a horseback ride through the English countryside. At one point during the ride, Her Majesty’s horse farted loudly. Clearly embarrassed, the Queen apologized to Reagan, who shot back, “I’m glad you told me, or I would have thought it was the horse.”

And who can forget, when shortly after being shot in the chest during an assassination attempt in 1981, Regan told his wife, Nancy, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”

Even as he was being rolled into the operating room, with his survival still very much in doubt, Reagan looked at the surgeons and said, “I hope you’re all Republicans.” 

of 06

Calvin Coolidge

President Calvin Coolidge Sitting with Newspaper
President Calvin Coolidge. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

You might think a guy nicknamed “Silent Cal” would be anything but funny. On the contrary, President Calvin Coolidge commanded a dry and sly sense of humor.

His propensity for wearing unusual hats and costumes, along with his easy, self-deprecating style of humor bolstered his popularity during his one term in office. Political historians have suggested that had he chosen to run for a second term, he would have won easily.

Coolidge’s philosophy for success? “Four-fifths of all our troubles would disappear if we would only sit down and keep still.”

At a dinner party thrown by a well-known Washington socialite, the hostess approached Coolidge and begged, “You must talk to me, Mr. Coolidge. I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.” To which Silent Cal artfully replied, “You lose.”

After his father gave him a puppy as a gift, Coolidge wrote his dad, “Your dog is growing well. She has bitten the iceman, the milkman, and the grocer man. It is good to have some way to get even with them for the high prices they charge for everything.”

Reporters often probed Coolidge about his private life. When asked what his hobbies were, Silent Cal replied, “I hold office.”
Coolidge loved to nap. In fact, he religiously took a two-hour nap every day. After waking up, he would ask the White House butler, “Is the country still there?”

Coolidge first became president through succession in 1923 after the sudden death of death of President Warren G. Harding. By the time he successfully ran for election himself in 1924, Silent Cal had become known by the press as “The Sphinx of the Potomac.”

He famously lived up to that title during the 1924 presidential campaign in the following exchange with the press pool:

Reporter: “Have you any statement on the campaign?”
Coolidge: “No.”
Reporter: “Can you tell us something about the world situation?”
Coolidge: “No.”
Reporter: “Any information about Prohibition?”
Coolidge: “No.

As the reporters dejectedly left the room, Coolidge called out to them, “Now remember -- don’t quote me.”

of 06

Franklin D. Roosevelt

President Franklin Roosevelt
President Franklin Roosevelt. Underwood Archive / Getty Images

Even through the pain of polio that paralyzed his legs, Franklin D. Roosevelt displayed an endearing sense of humor that helped him see America through some of its darkest days. Taking office in 1932, Roosevelt inherited a poverty-stricken nation mired in the Great Depression. He deftly used his sense of humor to win support for his sweeping New Deal program that restored economic stability. After sending Congress a controversial bill repealing the Volstead Act and ending Prohibition, FDR quipped, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”

“When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on,” Roosevelt advised.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the U.S. into World War II, Roosevelt famously assured the American people that, “All we have to fear is fear itself,” and then proceeded to use his sense of humor to help the American people laugh in the face of that fear.

During one of his wartime radio Fireside Chats, FDR related the story of a Maine fisherman with a drinking problem. Even after being warned by his doctors to stop drinking, the fisherman refused and kept right on drinking. When asked why, the fisherman replied, “I liked what I was drinking so much better than what I was hearing [from Roosevelt] that I just kept on drinking.”

FDR also used humor to deflect unwanted questions. When asked repeatedly be a reporter what an eagerly-awaited upcoming Fireside Chat would be about, FDR finally replied, “About 22 minutes.”

Roosevelt’s humor often revealed his humble side. When asked to reveal the source of his success in dealing with thorny issues, Roosevelt said, “I'm not the smartest fellow in the world, but I can sure pick smart colleagues.”

According to FDR, the secret to giving winning speeches was as simple as, “Be sincere, Be brief, Be seated.”

To the importance of humor in politics and government, Roosevelt said, “The overwhelming majority of Americans are possessed of two great qualities, a sense of humor and a sense of proportion.” 

of 06

And the Very Unfunny James K. Polk

President James K. Polk
President James K. Polk. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Perhaps the least funny person to sit in the Oval Office, James K. Polk, elected in 1844, vowed to serve only one term as president. At one point, 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.”

Polk’s own biographer, Eugene Irving McCormac wrote: “it is certain that Polk first and foremost lacked charm and magnetism.”

Often criticized for his lack of social graces, Polk was also a strict teetotaler, leading a political opponent to say of him, “His problem is that he drinks too much water.”

After making good on his vow to serve only one term, Polk became the youngest former president to die in retirement at the age of 53. He was one of only six presidents to have died while his direct successor was still in office.

Truman Sums Up the Presidency

While not best known for his comedic skills, President Harry Truman, who took office following the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, can claim perhaps the funniest description of the presidency ever offered. “My choice in life was either to be a piano-player​ in a whorehouse or a politician,” said Truman. “And to tell the truth there’s hardly any difference.”
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Longley, Robert. "America's Funniest Presidents." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2018, Longley, Robert. (2018, February 16). America's Funniest Presidents. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "America's Funniest Presidents." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2018).