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When TV Plays Politics for Laughs
by Cary O'Dell
Sometimes American politics is funny…on purpose.
Over the years, the TV networks have attempted to mine US government for comedy material. Sometimes these attempts have been at the local or state level—think of “The Governor and JJ” (1969-1970) or “Carter Country” (1978-1979) or “Man of the People” with James Garner (1991-1992) or, more recently, “The Mayor” with Brandon Michael Hall and Lea Michelle (2017-2018). Then, sometimes, shows have tried to poke fun at national politics and some have even reached all the way up to the Oval Office.
But, despite some somewhat well-done and often well-intentioned efforts, by and large, politics as TV sitcom doesn’t work so well. Often so as to not offend anyone (or potentially drive off roughly half of its viewing audience) politically-themed sitcoms work so hard to be so vague or so down-the-middle--not to be viewed as too liberal or too conservative--that the shows end up completely diluted and bland, stripped of any teeth.
Perhaps the only show that has ever fully been able to side-step this trap was Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her tour de force “Veep” (2012-2019). “Veep” thrived by going completely in the opposite direction--not only did they not care who they ever offended, lead character, VP Selena Myers, didn’t really care much about the issues to begin with; she just wanted her name and photo in the newspapers and for the optics to be optimal.
But before “Veep,” various shows tried to bring the funny to politics. Here’s a few of them….
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1962-1963)
The Farmer’s Daughter (1963-1966)
This time, circumstances had caused the young Katie to go to work as a governess for the sons of a widowed Congressman played by Walter Windom. Romance ensued as did Katie’s frequent displays of great political insight and ability. The show was a success and would end up running for three seasons. After becoming engaged at the end of season two, the Katie and the Congressman were wed early in season three. Interestingly, rather than be treated wearingly by the DC establishment, much of Washington seemed to embrace this TV portrayal.
When the wedding episode originally aired, renowned DC hostess Perle Mesta threw a watch party for it with 300 guests in attendance including the show’s stars, Stevens and Windom.
Grandpa Goes to Washington (1978-1979)
Once in DC, Albertson’s character, Senator Joe Kelley, often set political tongues wagging with his common sense approach to problem-solving. Then sometimes—don’t you know—politics got kind of close to home. In one episode, Grandpa faces off with a crooked land developer who wants to seize the baseball diamond where his grandson plays Little League! Gentle, but underwhelming, “GGW” left the air after just 11 episodes.
Mr. Smith (1983)
The show starred the same simian that had broken out in the Clint Eastwood theatrical hit “Any Which Way But Loose.” And he was frequently seen walking around this office in a suit, tie and spectacles. His voice was supplied by the show’s co-executive producer Ed Weinberger. Also in the cast was Tin Dunigan, as the orang’s former owner, and Leonard Frey as Mr. S.’s frequently frustrated DC handler. One would have thought that this show as so odd it had to work—but it didn’t and it was cancelled after only 13 episodes.
Hail to the Chief (1985)
Mr. President (1987-1988)
One episode had the President and his staff discovering juvenile distant-relatives smoking pot on the roof of the White House—do they call the police or not? “Mr. President” was on the air for two seasons and got a major lift in the second when the actress originally playing the First Lady departed the series and the producers brought in Madeline Kahn as the President’s sister-in-law who was now the new White House hostess. But some health problems of Scott’s and only so-so ratings, ended this President term after only 24 total episodes.
The Powers That Be (1992-1993)
Women of the House (1995)
As with “Designing,” “Women of the House” was not afraid to push buttons. One episode, that attacked popular entertainment, including network TV, for their repeated depictions of the victimization of women was too much for CBS to air and would only be seen much later on cable’s Lifetime Channel.
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