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When TV Plays Politics for Laughs

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

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1962-1963)
In this TV adaption of the great 1939 film, Fess Parker got to play a rare present-day character. Parker was Mr. Smith, of course, the freshman Senator Eugene Smith, who had brought his earnest, low-key approach to life and politics, from his sparsely-populated but never named state, to the corridors of power.  His wife was played by Sandra Warner.  This show didn’t really become a feather in Fess’s hat and aired only from September 1962 to March 1963. 

The Farmer’s Daughter tv show 1963

The Farmer’s Daughter (1963-1966)
Back in 1947, Loretta Young had one of her best roles (and won an Oscar) for her role in the big screen feature “The Farmer’s Daughter.”  In it, she played a young Swede named Katie who, by the end of the film, has ascended from working as a maid for a Congressman to being a member of Congress herself.  In 1963, the basic plot of the film was transferred to television where the luminous Inger Stevens took on the role of Katie. 

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

Grandpa Goes to Washington (1978-1979)
Only one season after the end of his “Chico and the Man” series, beloved actor Jack Albertson returned to TV (and NBC) in this soft-hearted (and hour long) comedy-drama.  As one can probably guess from the title, Albertson played a “Grandpa,” and a former political science teacher who had been forced into retirement when he hit age 65.  But rather than sit around and play checkers, Gramps got himself elected to Senate based on his radical platform—“Honesty in Government”! 

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)
Here’s an odd one for you.  This sitcom—that drew its title from the great Jimmy Stewart film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”—was about a super intelligent, talking orangutan who goes to work as a special consultant on things like nuclear energy for various high-ranking Washington, DC, officials.  (The monkey, you see, had once sipped and experimental enzyme potion which made him as smart or smarter than everyone in politics—probably not hard to imagine.) 

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)

Hail to the Chief (1985)
TV producer Susan Harris should forever be celebrated for her great creation “The Golden Girls.”  But many of her other TV programs never quite caught on, including this series which looked at the life of TV’s very first female President.  Patty Duke made a heralded return to the small screen in the title role and her character was not played for laughs—but, luckily, all of the characters around her were.  Ted Bessell was her philandering husband and Quinn Cummings played her rather randy daughter.  Joel Brooks played the Prez’s personal bodyguard who also happened to be gay.  Since the day she created “Soap,” Harris has very much wanted to create a serialized sitcom (as this was) but, unfortunately, this series was no more successful with this format than “Soap” had been and “Hail to the Chief” left office after only seven episodes.

 

Mr. President (1987-1988)
There are few actors of any era more stately and commanding the George C. Scott and certainly it were those qualities that this early FOX series played upon.  Produced by Johnny Carson’s production company, “President” starred the famous “Patton” actor as the newly-elected Samuel Arthur Tresch.  Per usual, President Tresch’s exact political affiliation was kept obscure and, instead, the show tried to focus on more family-oriented situations as this newly-elected President and his wife and kids (they had two teen children, a boy and a girl) adjusted to life in the White House including their daily dealing with the press and the Secret Service. 

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)
Amid much promotion, the great Norman Lear returned to series TV with this NBC sitcom in the early 1990s.  It would be the first time that a Lear show was directly addressing the political establishment.  “Powers” centered on a caring but daft Senator played by John Forsythe.  The program had an impressive supporting cast including Holland Taylor as the Senator’s barracuda of a wife and Valerie Mahaffrey as their mousy daughter and David Hyde-Pierce (pre-“Frasier”) as their even more mousy son-in-law.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt played their son.  “Powers” never drilled down too much into the nitty gritty of politics since its humor was rather broad and this family’s wide dysfunction generated most of the laughs.

 

Women of the House (1995)
“Designing Women,” during its heyday never shied away from making a statement and when its producer, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, decided to bring back one of Sugarbaker’s original women, she put her right into the center of politics.  Delta Burke, who had buried the hatchet with Bloodworth-Thomason after famously feuding and being fired by them from “Designing,” returned in the role of her spoiled Southern belle, Suzanne.  But, now, Suzanne was in Congress, having taken over the seat left vacant by her recently deceased husband.  Filling out the cast was Teri Garr and Patricia Heaton (pre-“Everybody Loves Raymond”). 

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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