As we make our dumb descent into the global hell that shall someday be known as the Trumpozoic era, it’s helpful to remember that some presidential candidates have actually been in on their own jokes. These vary from merry pranksters who can’t resist a good hoax to earnest political satirists with a real bone to pick with the system. Political theater — emphasis on the theater — often reveals insights about just how absurd our political process really is. And while the “candidates” involved may be ridiculous, they’re often just more transparent versions of those who are genuinely after the brass ring.
In the midst of a campaign season that comes closer to a parody of itself than any in recent memory, here are 10 of the best satirical campaigns for president of the United States.
1. Stephen Colbert. On Oct. 16, 2007, Stephen Colbert announced his candidacy for president of the United States on his Comedy Central show. (Two days earlier, he’d written in the New York Times that “it [was] clear that the voters [were] desperate for a white, male, middle-aged, Jesus-trumpeting alternative.”) In a first, he claimed he would seek both the Republican and Democratic nominations in South Carolina, his home state. Despite Colbert’s insistence the campaign was real, the tenor of his words at the time suggested otherwise:
At various times, Colbert had mentioned Mike Huckabee, Vladimir Putin, and even himself, as possible running mates. He also agreed to endorse Garry Kasparov's bid to win the Russian presidency in return for Kasparov's support for his campaign.
The plan to run as both parties fell by the wayside when the comedian discovered it would cost $35,000 to enter the Republican fray, though he did pay the Democratic fee of just $2,500. Unfortunately — or more likely, exactly as planned — the South Carolina Democratic Party executive council turned down his application, believing the campaign was all part of Colbert’s shtick.
He ran again in 2012, but for now, let’s remember how great he was at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner:
2. Pat Paulsen. A regular on the Smothers Brothers’ variety show in the late 1960s, Pat Paulsen is often cited as a direct antecedent of Stephen Colbert, a comedian who delivered biting political truths and barbed satire from behind a seemingly earnest veneer. Paulsen launched his first campaign for president on the show in 1968, claiming he was running as a member of the Straight Talking American Government Party, or STAG Party. It would be just one of five runs for the office he would undertake, all yielding some brilliant mockery of the conventions that fill our presidential campaign seasons.
As the New York Times notes, the deadpan funnyman’s campaign slogans included, ''We Cannot Stand Pat,'' ''We Can Be Decisive, Probably" and "United We Sit." His speeches were delivered straight-faced, though filled with potent quotables meant for laughs. A few choice examples: “All the problems we face in the United States today can be traced to an unenlightened immigration policy on the part of the American Indian.” “Should we continue to spend billions to subsidize foreign military dictatorships, or should we concentrate on taking better care of the one we have right here at home?” “Only a cheap politician, greedy for political gain, would try to single out one individual for blame. The fault lies not with the individual but with the system, and that system is Richard Nixon.”
In 1992, Paulsen placed second to George H. W. Bush in North Dakota’s Republican primary. Four years later, during his final run before his death in 1997, Paulsen came in second to Bill Clinton in the New Hampshire Democratic Primary.
3. Deez Nuts. In mid-August, when presented with a choice between Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump or Deez Nuts, a surprising number of likely voters in Iowa, Minnesota and North Carolina — at a rate of 7, 8 and 9 percent, respectively — went for Nuts. It seemed to confirm the old idea that America is a land where anything is possible, including that a 15-year-old high school sophomore from Iowa running as an independent named after a 23-year-old Dr. Dre track can grab the fuck it, who cares vote. Brady C. Olson — Nuts' real name — told Rolling Stone that he leans Libertarian; is running to break the two-party system and oppose the current front-runners; and endorses “either Bernie Sanders or Gary Johnson” (should his own candidacy fail, that is).
Nuts’ platform, laid out at his website, is fairly straightforward: decrease the budget, cut subsidies to big oil, support green energy, deport undocumented workers older than 18. Despite high-profile endorsements from Anson Mount, Torrey Smith, Ice-T and “deez nuts” originator Warren G, Nuts’ poll numbers have slipped more recently, placing him behind Captain Crunch, though he’s still beating Butt Stuff by a wide margin. (I’m not making this up.) Asked about the slide, he told the Times it would not affect the integrity of his candidacy, saying, “I will not be running negative campaigns against other candidates.”
As for a running mate, Nuts says he’s been looking at Limberbutt McCubbins because, as he told the Daily Beast, “[T]he Nuts/McCubbins ticket sounds amazing.”
4. Limberbutt McCubbins. Though he has yet to accept the offer to share a ticket, McCubbins has publicly praised Deez Nuts’ campaign, posting on social media, “[A]ll I can say is that I'm pleased that a young person is interested in politics...I encourage more youth to join in — that, my friends, is where the real change happens, when everyone participates in the process.”
McCubbins, whose website states he was “born homeless, in Louisville, Kentucky,” is a cat. A cat with almost 11,000 Facebook likes, but a cat nonetheless. McCubbins is a registered Democrat, or as 17-year-old campaign manager Isaac Weiss puts it, a “Demo-cat.” He’s pretty good on the issues, and supports the ACA (Affordable Cat Act), believes it’s time to address people-made climate change, and strongly believes everyone should have access to both medical and recreational catnip. McCubbins’ campaign slogan? “Meow is the time!”
5. Vermin Supreme.
A political veteran who’s been running for local and national office since the 1980s, you might know Vermin Supreme as that guy who wears a black Wellington boot like a hat and looks like a wizard from Vermont. (Stay with me, here.) Supreme became a lot more well known during the last general election, when he took part in the Lesser-Known Democratic Candidates Presidential Forum, an appearance that involved him glitter-bombing fellow lesser-known presidential candidate and right-to-life nutter Randall Terry. (It was glorious, and you can watch it here.) His platform can be reduced to four key points: Mandatory tooth brushing laws; zombie preparedness; free ponies for all Americans; and time travel research. (“I’m the only candidate who will go back in time and kill baby Hitler before he’s even born.”)
Sure enough, he’s running in 2016, and has the kooky, nonsensical political ads to prove it. Supreme, who made frequent appearances at the Occupy protests in Boston, is the centerpiece of a 2014 documentary titled Who is Vermin Supreme: An Outsider Odyssey. Also, he is apparently ordained to perform weddings. Check the video below to hear Supreme explain his manifesto, which includes the following: “I will promise your electorate heart anything you desire, because you are my constituents, you are the informed voting public, and I have no intention of keeping any promise that I make. This election year, vote early. Vote often. And remember, a vote for me, Vermin Supreme, is a vote completely thrown away.”
6. Pigasus. Probably the most famous non-human presidential candidate in U.S. history, Pigasus was the 1968 nominee of the Youth International Party, also known as Yippies. The 145-pound pig's campaign was dreamed up by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin; protest singer Phil Ochs actually bought the pig from a farm. The plan was to announce Pigasus' candidacy at a rally held just outside the Chicago convention center hosting the year’s Democratic Convention; an unsubtle fuck you to the establishment figures inside, including President Lyndon Johnson, who was five years deep into the Vietnam War. (The Yippies campaign slogan was, “They nominate a president and he eats the people. We nominate a president and the people eat him.”)
When the moment arrived, just as Rubin began to read Pigasus’ acceptance speech, the police moved in and began making arrests, even taking the pig into custody. The Chicago Eight (later Seven) would face lengthy trials for multiple charges following the convention. As far as Pigasus is concerned, this exchange from the court transcript is a must-read:
ATTY. WILLIAM KUNSTLER: What were you doing when you were arrested?
PHIL OCHS: We were arrested announcing the pig's candidacy for president.
MR. KUNSTLER: Did Jerry Rubin speak?
OCHS: Yes, Jerry Rubin was reading a prepared speech for the pig — the opening sentence was something like, "I, Pigasus, hereby announce my candidacy for the Presidency of the United States." He was interrupted in his talk by the police who arrested us....
KUNSTLER: Do you remember what you were charged with?
OCHS: I believe the original charge mentioned was something about an old Chicago law about bringing livestock into the city, or disturbing the peace, or disorderly conduct, and when it came time for the trial, I believe the charge was disorderly conduct.
KUNSTLER: Were you informed by a police officer that the pig had squealed on you?
According to Wikipedia, “[s]ources vary on the fate of Pigasus. There is some speculation that a police officer ate him.”
7. Joan Jett Blakk. The drag alter ego of Chicago native Terrence Smith, Joan Jett Blakk was a pioneer of the gay rights scene in Chicago and founded the city’s chapter of Queer Nation. A self-described “combination of Divine, David Bowie in his early days, and Grace Jones,” Jett Blakk’s career in politics was launched with a 1991 run for Chicago mayor against incumbent Richard Daley. (The 1991 documentary Drag in for Votes offers an upclose look at the campaign.)
Though Daley was handily reelected, Jett Blakk continued to pursue politics and a year later entered the race for the presidency, running on the Queer Nation Party ticket. Conveniently, George H.W. Bush was the Republican contender, thus the campaign slogan “Lick Bush in ‘92!” A former governor from Arkansas named Bill Clinton won that year, but Jett Blakk ran against him four years later in 1996. This time, the campaign’s slogan was “Lick Slick Willie in ‘96!” We all know how that one ended. Though Jett Blakk hasn’t mounted another run to become Commander-in-Chief, additional political campaigns have followed, including a 1999 bid for the mayorship of San Francisco.
8. Yetta Bronstein. If the name Yetta Bronstein doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because she ran two very low-key campaigns for president, bereft of the endless stumping we’ve all come to expect. Though many at the time attributed this to the fact that she was an unassuming, 48-year-old housewife from the Bronx, a more accurate reason is that she didn’t actually exist. Bronstein was a creation of perennial prankster, filmmaker and musician Alan Abel, who has carried out a succession of tricks on the American public and press since the late 1950s. A Museum of Hoaxes entry on Bronstein’s campaign offers more details:
Her slogans were "Vote for Yetta and watch things get better" and "Put a mother in the White House." Her proposals included national bingo, self-fluoridation, placing a suggestion box on the White House fence, and printing a nude picture of Jane Fonda on postage stamps "to ease the post office deficit and also give a little pleasure for six cents to those who can't afford Playboy magazine."
Bronstein, who was voiced by Abel’s wife Jeanne and had the face of Abel’s mother, ran for the presidency in both 1964 and 1968. She also, apparently, released a comedy record that included a cover of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” You can hear it below:
9. Gracie Allen. Along with her husband George Burns, Gracie Allen pulled off ditz as only a brain could. The act would come in handy in 1940, when after ratings for their radio show dropped slightly, the couple decided to launch a publicity stunt to get listeners’ attention. As Burns would recount years later, the idea for a presidential run had fairly mundane roots: “Gracie and I were at home in Beverly Hills with our children [when she] suddenly remarked, ‘I’m tired of knitting this sweater. I think I’ll run for president this year!'” The campaign was soon off and running on the Surprise Party ticket, which had a kangaroo as its mascot (1940 was a leap year) and the accompanying slogan, “It’s in the bag!” The duo set out on a whistlestop tour by train to perform for audiences around the country, and Allen began appearing on other radio shows to “talk policy” — or rather, to deliver nuggets of comedy gold about the issues of the day. The George and Gracie site offers examples:
When Ken Murray on the Texaco Star Theatre asked with which party Gracie was affiliated, she heartily retorted, “I may take a drink now and then, but I never get affiliated.”
Gracie was the only candidate to encourage the American people to take pride in our national debt, boasting that “it’s the biggest in the world.” So impressed was she with the $43 billion owed by the government that she proposed depositing the entire amount in a “safe” bank at two percent interest.
Asked if she would recognize Russia, Gracie showed uncharacteristic hesitation: “I don’t know. I meet so many people….”
The campaign was a huge success, landing Allen an invite from Eleanor Roosevelt to address the National Women’s Press Club, an endorsement from Harvard University, and netting her 42,000 votes in the election. “Vote for Gracie,” her campaign’s high-stepping theme song sung by Allen herself, is below:
10. Wavy Gravy/Nobody. In 1964, columnist Arthur Hoppe penned a satirical article about a Nobody candidacy. (“There's not a dry eye to be seen today down at Nobody for President Headquarters...There can be no question that Nobody's campaign has struck a responsive chord in the hearts of the American voters”). A little over a decade later, in 1976, Woodstock icon Wavy Gravy, in cahoots with political activist Curtis Sprangler, launched the Nobody for President campaign under the fictitious Birthday Party. "Wavy Gravy became ‘Nobody's Fool,’ Curtis Spangler became ‘Nobody's Campaign Manager.’" The two even set out on a tour of the country and at its end, after the election, "pointed out that since 43 percentage of all eligible voters had voted for Nobody, Nobody clearly won the election.'"
The Nobody campaign and Birthday Party live on — there’s Nobody for President 2016 — and even has a website.