From The Archives

With Anne Beatts, The Joke Was Always on President Ford

Pioneering comedy writer Anne Beatts's take on a president who was funny without trying

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[UPDATE, April 22, 2021: Back in 2019, when Donald Trump was still president, we resurfaced this 1974 page, written by Anne Beatts, from our archives. Beatts blazed a path through the boys’ club of comedy writing in the 1970s, most notoriously as the brains behind the 1973 fake Volkswagen Bug ad that ran in National Lampoon with the tagline, “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today.” If you don’t get the punchline we can only say that checking it out is one internet rabbit hole that is worth plunging into. You can start here. Beatts, who was born in 1947, passed away earlier this month. —R.C. Baker] 

On November 27, 1973, the U.S. Senate voted 92-3 to confirm Gerald R. Ford as Richard Nixon’s vice president after the elected veep, Spiro Agnew, had resigned due to a bribery scandal. Nine months later it was Nixon himself who stepped down to avoid impeachment for various high crimes and misdemeanors, and Ford, formerly a congressman from Michigan, became America’s first — and so far only — appointed president. 

Turns out, the joke was on him. 

Ford is probably best remembered for Chevy Chase’s merciless portrayal of the president as a bumbling buffoon on Saturday Night Live, as in this clip from the comedy hit’s first season, in 1975.

Anne Beatts was a writer for SNL in those early years, making her an anomaly in a field that was then a fairly impregnable boys’ club. But Beatts (pronounced “Beats”) had earlier battled her way into another bastion of postwar American humor, National Lampoon magazine, eventually becoming its first female contributing editor. Despite that success she was still struggling for recognition. In an interview in Vice’s Broadly, Beatts recounted a meal with the magazine’s co-founder, Henry Beard, in which she asked him why more of her work wasn’t getting into print. His reason was succinct: “I just don’t think chicks are funny.” Beatts went on to say, “I cried and lost a contact lens in my soup — instead of punching him in the nose, which is what he deserved. So I stopped writing for the magazine altogether.”

Perhaps that was a bit of luck for the Village Voice. In the December 30, 1974, issue of the paper, Beatts contributed “Gerald Ford’s Joke Book,” observing, “If there’s anything we as a nation need right now, it’s the ability to laugh at our troubles.” Ford was a promising target because he had already gained a reputation for his malapropisms and physical clumsiness, traits Chase would begin wildly exaggerating a year later. In the Voice, Beatts displayed her chops by taking Ford’s penchant for misdelivering punchlines to old jokes by bending their banality almost 360 degrees so that they became absurdly funny again:

“A man went to see a psychiatrist. ‘Doctor, I have a terrible problem,’ he confessed. ‘It’s my memory. I can’t remember anything for more than a few seconds.’”

“’How long have you had this problem?’ asked the doctor.”

“’I don’t remember how long I’ve had it,’ the man answered.”

Beatts runs through a repertoire of such off-kilter chestnuts until she twists her concept even a few more degrees to deliver a joke that is perhaps more current than ever:

“Do you know the country is going to the dogs?”

“Yes, and if you hum a few bars I’ll sing it for you.”    ❖

Highlights