Comedian Pat Paulsen’s Sincerely Insincere Presidential Campaigns

We Hope / Wikimedia Commons
We Hope / Wikimedia Commons / We Hope / Wikimedia Commons

“Mr. Paulsen, what is your opinion of the recent Supreme Court decision regarding the liberalization of obscenity?”

Patrick “Pat” Paulsen begins to answer the question, but something is awry. The close-up of Paulsen’s face shows that his left eye and right eye blink at different times, and he speaks out of both sides of his mouth, literally. As the audience roars with laughter, other questions—“How do you stand on the question of welfare?” and “What is your opinion of the current problem of Vietnam?” – are asked, but Paulsen can’t seem to give a straight answer. A split-screen divides his face right down the middle, so that one side of his face responds to the question one way and the other side replies with the opposite platform's opinion.

This sketch aired on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a popular TV show on CBS, in 1968. Taking on the two-faced, fickle nature of politicians, the sketch showcased Paulsen’s satirical take on contemporary social and political issues.

Before becoming a comedic performer, Paulsen served in the Marines at the tail end of WWII, worked a series of odd jobs, enrolled at City College of San Francisco, and participated in theatre troupes. In the mid-'60s, comedian/guitarist Paulsen was performing his act at a club when he met Tom and Dick Smothers, the musical comedy duo known as The Smothers Brothers. They liked Paulsen’s act so much that they hired him to write funny folk songs for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

Working for the Smothers Brothers was Paulsen’s big break. In 1967, he appeared regularly on their TV show, using his trademark deadpan delivery style to perform editorials pointing out the absurdity of “the establishment.” Because the show was hugely popular, Paulsen got other gigs and even more exposure: he appeared as the Secretary of the Department of UFO Information on a 1967 episode of The Monkees, and he won an Emmy in 1968 for his work on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

In 1968—the year of a difficult national election, fraught with protests, riots, and the assassinations of both civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and candidate Robert F. Kennedy—the Smothers Brothers suggested to Paulsen that he run for president as a mock candidate, using their TV show as his campaign platform. Paulsen agreed and announced his decision to run on the show, maintaining his deadpan, solemn tone. He proclaimed that his political party was S.T.A.G.—the Straight Talking American Government party. Although his campaign was satirical, he did comment on real political issues and pointed out politicians’ hypocrisy, arrogance, and incompetence. Commenting on the draft, for example, he noted, “A good many people feel that our present draft laws are unjust. These people are called soldiers.”

Paulsen’s indifference to the campaigning process—“Is America ready for such dynamic and decisive leadership? Will I solve our civil rights problems? Will I unite this country and bring it forward? Will I obliterate the national debt? Sure, why not”—delighted his fans. He traveled around the U.S., giving sarcastic speeches at political rallies and conventions. In each location, he told his listeners that their city was the best city and that he planned to move there after the election. The crowds watching him were in on the joke, laughing and cheering at Paulsen’s slogans and one-liners like “We can be decisive, probably” and “If elected, I will win.”

both photos Michael McCullough via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

At his campaign rallies, he went through the usual politician motions of kissing babies and shaking hands with his supporters. The fans at his rallies held handmade “Paulsen for President” posters and chanted “We want Paulsen, we want Paulsen” before he spoke. His jokes spanned from silly (“We have nothing to fear but fear itself … and of course the boogieman"), to faux humble brags (“I’m a common, ordinary simple savior of America’s destiny”), to immature puns (“I've upped my standards. Now, up yours.”). Using blatant lies and double-talk in his speeches, Paulsen also made people laugh by verbally attacking the legitimate presidential candidates (eventual winner Richard Nixon, incumbent vice president Hubert Humphrey, and American Independent George Wallace). He responded to criticism and questions he didn’t like by brushing off his challengers as “picky, picky, picky.”

Although his name didn’t appear on state ballots in 1968, some voters did submit his name as a write-in candidate. After The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour ended in 1969, Paulsen appeared on Sesame Street and Get Smart, and he had his own comedy/variety show on ABC for a few months in 1970, called Pat Paulsen's Half A Comedy Hour.

Paulsen’s candidacy was always a joke—he never posed a credible threat to actual politicians in terms of numbers of votes. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, though, played along with Paulsen’s shtick, admitting that Paulsen made him nervous and then pledging his support to Paulsen’s campaign before cracking a smile and walking off.

Paulsen "ran for president" in five subsequent elections: in 1972, 1980, 1988, 1992, and 1996. Although his campaign promises continued to be tongue-in-cheek, he did still get some write-in votes each time. Over the years, his name appeared on the ballot in the New Hampshire Democratic primary and the North Dakota Republican primary. In the 1972 New Hampshire primary, he ran as a Republican against President Nixon, getting over 1200 votes. Almost 11,000 people across the country voted for him in the 1992 Republican primary. Switching parties in 1996, he ran as a Democrat against incumbent President Clinton, winning over 1000 votes in New Hampshire.

Paulsen died in 1997 from complications from cancer and pneumonia, but his legacy of parodying the political process lives on. His son, Monty Paulsen, ran for president in 2008, and TV comedian Stephen Colbert ran a similar mock campaign for president in 2008.