CPAC’s ‘Laugh-In’

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… let’s go to the party!

                    — Dan Rowan

Without a trace of transgression, Time recently described Donald Trump and his nascent administration as “a vaudeville presidency.” Last week, with the absurd appearance by several of the president’s principal architects, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) unwittingly staged this politically charged vaudeville act, replete with comedy, contortion, and commotion that, at times, resembled the television program Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In from the late 1960s and early 1970s.


Hosted by comedians Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, the unique variety show was, says, “a fast moving barrage of jokes, one-liners, running skits, musical numbers as well as making fun of social and political issues” of the period. And so was, ironically, CPAC 2017.

Writing for The New York Times Magazine in 1968, Joan Barthel observed that “whatever else it is — and at one time or another ‘Laugh-In’ is hilarious, brash, flat, peppery, irreverent, satirical, repetitious, risqué, topical and in borderline taste — it is primarily and always fast, fast, fast! And in this it is contemporary. It’s attuned to the times. It’s hectic, electric …” And so is the Trump Administration, which, in its first month has proven to be a series of recurring, improvisational sketches, careening with disorder. Hence, the surreal Laugh-In connection.

You bet your sweet bippy!

In the television program, “guests” at the “Cocktail Party” would mill around with drinks in hand or dance to music that would suddenly halt when a party-goer would face the camera to deliver a one-liner or a quick joke. (Today’s party stops and starts again after President Trump transmits on Twitter his version of one-liners. (Remember the infamous tweet about the “so-called judge”?))

CPAC was, without a hint of hysteria, hi-jacked by a few of its guests vicariously reprising several popular segments of Laugh-In: “Mod, Mod World,” (Russian sabotage?); “Laugh-in Looks at the News” (fake news?); and the “Joke Wall” (the great Wall of Mexico?). With life imitating art, these cameo appearances made this year’s CPAC disturbingly memorable. And laughable.

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, just last month on Meet the Press said the White House press secretary used “alternative facts.” (Of which Rolling Stone rightly said, “the Trump presidency had its first laugh line.”) Telling attendees last Thursday in anticipation of Trump’s appearance the next day of the conference — stop the music! — “Well, I think by tomorrow this will be TPAC.”

But what was lost among the intermittent laughter was this stunning punchline: “Every great movement,” Conway said, “ends up being a little bit sclerotic and dusty after a time.” That line was directed at Reagan conservatives. Just as “Laugh-In” had obliterated conventional variety show boundaries, Trump World is eschewing traditional conservatism, simultaneously ransacking it and redefining it. Even as Conway formally announces the end of the Reagan Revolution, President Trump cleverly says his victory was a “win for conservative values.”

Verrrry interesting!

Apparently, Vice President Mike Pence was never let in on the punchline. Thursday night, after finishing his introductory remarks to CPAC with the jab, “all kidding aside,” Pence delivered this bizarre, if not ridiculous comparison: “From the outset, our president [Trump] reminded me of somebody else. A man who inspired me to actually join the cause of conservatism nearly 40 years ago. President Ronald Reagan.” Later, Pence quoted Scripture. Stop the music, again!

And then there was the question-and-answer session with the dynamic duo, Steve Bannon, White House chief strategist, and Reince Priebus, White House chief of staff. Trying to convey a patina of unity and order to this “fine-tuned machine,” Priebus said, “the truth of the matter is … President Trump brought together the party and the conservative movement.” And Priebus also compared Trump to Reagan saying the former also sought “peace through strength.”

Gannon (who led the crusading “alt-right movement” while at Breitbart, used to host his own counterprogramming conference to CPAC, called the “Uninvited”), straight faced, said, “The reason why Reince and I are good partners is that we can disagree.” Hilarious.

Laugh-In fashioned its aesthetic from the counterculture of the 1960s (“sit-ins,” “love-ins,” and “teach-ins”), reasons The show “tapped into the zeitgeist in a way no other show had, appealing to both flower children and middle-class Americans.” And Bannon, a counterculture conservative, likewise believes that “the power of this movement” will appeal to a broad spectrum of people too. Or will it?

One board member of the American Conservative Union (CPAC’s host) told The Daily Beast that, “‘The craziest elements of the [party] have managed to get every single thing they wanted over the past year … This is the shape our movement is in today.’”

And that’s the truth!

But first, a few words from our president, who openly mocked CPAC in his monologue-cum-speech last Friday, by declaring, “You finally have a president.” (Read President Reagan’s elegant 1981 CPAC speech, and his 1987 CPAC speech in which he imagined the future of conservative values; “a vision that works.”) Trump in his stand-up said, “We’re going to put the regulation industry out of work and out of business. And, by the way, I want regulation.” On his still partially filled Cabinet: “I assume we’re setting records for that. That’s the only thing good about it, is we’re setting records. I love setting records.”

Recalling his first CPAC speech years before, with “very little notes, and even less preparation,” Trump quipped, “So, when you have practically no notes and no preparation, and you leave and everybody was thrilled, I said, ‘I think I like this business’.”  

During the 1968 presidential campaign, candidate Richard Nixon taped a six second clip for “Laugh-In,” reprising one of its signature gag lines. Nixon won the election and Dick Martin jokingly confessed, “A lot of people have accused us.” After CPAC 2017, Reagan conservatives are the butt of the joke and target of that gag line:

Sock it to me!



James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and former columnist with The Cape Cod Times.