Long Before There Was Stephen Colbert There Was Pat Paulson

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Raney McKool is an HNN intern.

The celebrity candidate is, nowadays, a common phenomena: Jesse Ventura, Jerry Springer, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Howard Stern, Fred Thompson, and Ronald Reagan are prime examples. The list goes on. However, Stephen Colbert’s announcement on his nightly talk show, The Colbert Report, of his run for the presidency draws attention to a different kind of celebrity candidate: the comedian. 

On Tuesday, October 16th Mr. Colbert appeared on his old stomping grounds, The Daily Show, to reveal his decision “to officially consider whether or not I will announce.” Passing up the opportunity to officially make his announcement--on a more “prestigious” show, he noted--Colbert was true to his word.  Fifteen minutes later on his own program, amid a shower of red and blue balloons, Mr. Colbert made known his intention of running: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I am hereby declaring that I will enter the presidential primary, in my native South Carolina, running as a ‘favorite son.’ ”

As some Americans may recall, Mr. Colbert is not the first comedian to run for president. Many will remember Pat Paulsen’s multiple candidacies in '68, ’72, ’80, ’88, ’92, and ’96, with the slogan: "Just a common, ordinary, simple savior of America's destiny." Mr. Paulsen, a former U.S. Marine, rose to fame after appearing on The Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour as a dead-pan editorialist. Like Mr. Colbert, Mr. Paulsen’s comedy and subsequent campaigns are best described as satirical,rooted in absurdity. In his editorials for the Smother Brothers’, Mr. Paulsen lampooned  the hypocritical and pierced the balloons of the santimonious. Many of his routines still sound fresh.   On the subject of gun control, Paulsen half jokingly said: “Let's preserve our freedom to kill.” On the subject of congressional ethics he said: “ lawmakers don't like to take graft and big bribes ... but how else can they get the money to buy votes?” On poverty: “Poverty is necessary. Because without it, we couldn't have a poverty program.” Though Mr. Paulsen never made it to the oval office, he finished second to President Bush in 1992 in the North Dakota Republican Primary and second to President Clinton in 1996 in the New Hampshire Democratic Primary (he received 921 votes). Mr. Paulsen passed away in 1997.

Another comedian to run for president is Dick Gregory. Born in St. Louis, MO in 1932, Mr. Gregory is considered the first comedian to break racial barriers and perform for both black and white audiences. His break came in 1961, when Hugh Hefner booked him for the Playboy Club. His first performance was so successful that he was offered a three-year contract. His ironic style often addressed racial and social issues. “I am really enjoying the new Martin Luther King Jr stamp -- just think about all those white bigots, licking the backside of a black man,” Gregory once joked.

Mr. Gregory always had a strong interest in civil rights and social justice and in 1968 he ran for president as a write-in candidate for the Freedom and Peace Party. It has been ventured that the 1.5 million votes he received, which might have otherwise been cast for Hubert Humphrey, helped put Nixon in the White House, though Nixon's electoral college margin was sufficient in fact to guarantee victory. Hunter S. Thompson mentions in Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail ’72 having voted for Gregory. According to his website, Mr. Gregory now works as an activist, philosopher, anti-drug crusader, comedian, author, actor, recording artist and nutritionist.
Following in the footsteps of Paulson and Gregory, Mr. Colbert has quite a bit to live up to, but it looks as if  that will not be a problem. If he truly is serious about running, he faces several obstacles, most coming from the Federal Election Committee (FEC); as a candidate he would have to give up his income from his corporate sponsor (Doritos) and probably give up his nightly TV show too. Perhaps he intended merely to cause a ruckus. If so, he succeeded! Last week the South Carolina Democratic Party Executive Council voted 13-3 to keep him off the ballot.

On Monday Mr. Colbert officially announced his campaign over: “I am shocked and saddened by the South Carolina Democratic Executive Council's 13-to-3 vote to keep me off their presidential primary ballot. Although I lost by the slimmest margin in presidential election history (only 10 votes) I have chosen not to put the country through another agonizing Supreme Court battle. It is time for this nation to heal.”

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Ed Schmitt - 11/13/2007

This is a helpful, timely, and fun historical analogy in the best spirit of what this site is about.


Just a couple of small notes. As the old joke goes, what do academics do for fun when they get together? Make distinctions. While Paulsen and Colbert undoubtedly offered serious critiques of the absurdity of the system with their satire, Gregory was really a political activist as much as he was a comic.

And Paulsen is misspelled.