Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Lincoln Assassination and Modern Comedy

Outside of documentaries, Lincoln has been depicted on screen almost solely in the comedic frame in recent years. I wrote an overview last year about Lincoln's appearance in film which coincided with early filmmaking, and, also about the non-serious path Lincoln has taken on screen in our own time. An insightful article on Lincoln's humor (lest we forget that Lincoln was something of a funnyman himself) was written by Benjamin P. Thomas. As one can see from the clip above, Lincoln's humor, which we might not understand today, is not the main focus of this post. Instead, I want to show the irony of the current situation: Lincoln was genuinely funny. Yet, the serious portrayals of Lincoln are missing this element and thus, without this part of the Lincoln memory, he is turned into the butt of the joke to make him humorous again.

The assassination of Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth has become a common scene to make light of. In The Whitest Kids U'Know sketch in the video above, there is an inversion of Booth's goal. The historical assassination of Lincoln (along with those of Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward--neither of these latter two attempts was successful) was supposed to decapitate the Federal government and send the North into chaos thereby giving the Confederacy a chance to survive. Booth thought he would be a hero after the event. In the sketch, Booth's aim is to shut up an annoying President who is ruining a performance of Hamlet (the play during the actual assassination was Our American Cousin) with a vampire subplot. Booth uses not a Deringer pistol, but a hammer on Lincoln's butt (I said Lincoln was the butt of the joke, after all) to complete the assassination. The foul-mouthed Lincoln depicted by The Whitest Kids U'Know can be contrasted with the similarly out of character drunk and crude Lincoln in Hard Drinkin' Lincoln (the real Lincoln was a teetotaler). All of the episodes of Hard Drinkin' Lincoln are about the same: Booth ends up shooting an obnoxious Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, usually to the delight of the crowd. Here is just one example. Finally, Family Guy, a show with a much more developed sense of humor takes on the assassination with its typical non sequitur cut scene. Booth is seated behind Lincoln in the Presidential box and is annoyed by Lincoln's stovepipe hat which is blocking the view. Lincoln himself is laughing loudly and answers his cellphone. At this point, Family Guy really distinguishes itself from the previous two examples. Lincoln's ringtone is "Dixie" and he jokingly (and not very subtly) reminds his interlocutor about whom should be thanked for making it possible to take "that black chick" home. Booth then pulls a Deringer from his coat. Lincoln did actually like the song "Dixie", his opponents said he promoted sexual relations between whites and blacks and in Lincoln's last speech (which Booth attended), Lincoln's perceived promotion of African American citizenship pushed Booth toward assassination.

When it comes to taking Lincoln ridiculously out of character at his assassination for a laugh, the joke is usually on those who attempt to take this step. Arguably, the gold standard of the modern attempts to make Lincoln funny (by actually trying to give us a taste of what Lincolnian humor was like) remains Robert V. Barron's portrayal of Lincoln in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure--this movie has no depiction of the assassination. Barron's physical resemblance to Lincoln is good. However, instead of Lincoln's high pitched Western accent, we get the usual: a deep voice filled with gravitas. In any event, Lincoln borrowing from his Gettysburg Address to fit the circumstances of a high school history project takes us down what seems like it might be a serious path. Then, Lincoln's faces shows genuine amusement because he knows what is coming and after a carefully timed paused, bursts into an exaggerated gesture punctuated by the phrase "party on, dudes!" It was the late 1980s and the film was set in California, it made sense. The attempts to make the Lincoln assassination funny, on the other hand, are nonsensical.