While politics is hardly a laughing matter, American presidents have been known for their sense of humor and an ability to laugh at themselves. That’s what August 11, National Presidential Joke Day is all about.
The holiday has its origins in the Reagan Administration when he made a joke about bombing the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Some people thought it was funny, but critics thought it crossed a line.
Here’s a look at National Presidential Joke Day and the joke that started it all.
1. The Holiday Marks the Day Reagan Said He Outlawed ‘Russia Forever’ During a Sound Check
National Presidential Joke Day marks the day President Ronald Reagan joked about outlawing Russia “forever” and “We begin bombing in five minutes.” Reagan made the gaffe during a sound check before his Saturday night address on NPR. Reagan was caught on the microphone saying:
My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.
This was a reference to how the real address began:
My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you that today I signed legislation that will allow student religious groups to begin enjoying a right they’ve too long been denied — the freedom to meet in public high schools during nonschool hours, just as other student groups are allowed to do.
The gaffe did not actually air, but a recording was made and reaction was swift. As The Associated Press reported at the time, the joke made the front page of The London Standard with the headline “President’s Nuclear Joke Misfires.” In West Germany, one of the political parties called Reagan “an irresponsible old man.”
The Soviet Union called it a “monstrous” statement.
2. George Washington Did Have a Sense of Humor, Especially When it Came to Dogs
While we usually think of George Washington as a stoic political and military leader, he did have a sense of humor, especially when it came to his dogs. Mount Vernon notes that Washington had several dogs with funny names.
Washington had a Dalmatian named Madame Moose and a hound named Sweetlips. Records show that he had other dogs with names like Tipsy, Mopsey, Ragman, Truelove and Vulcan.
The Revolutionary War Archives notes that there are other examples of Washington’s humor in his letters, even in those written during the worst days of the Revolutionary War.
“As I have heard since my arrival at this place, a circumstantial account of my death and dying speech. I take this early opportunity of … contradicting the first, and assuring you that I have yet to compose the latter,” he wrote to his brother John in 1775. One soldier wrote that after a junior officer fell off a horse, “General Washington was so compulsed with laughter that it was declared, tears ran down his’ cheeks.”
3. Barack Obama Loved His Turkey Pardoning Ceremony Dad Jokes
President Barack Obama had a sense of humor, which was always on display at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. However, he saved his best worst jokes for the Presidential Turkey Ceremony.
Every year during his administration, Obama delivered a “corny-copia of dad jokes about turkeys,” as he said during his 2016 ceremony, notes NPR.
“Actually [Sasha and Malia] just couldn’t take my jokes anymore. They were fed up,” Obama said in November 2016. “What I haven’t told them yet is we are going to do this every year from now on. No cameras, just us, every year. No way I’m cutting this habit cold turkey.”
He even brought his “Yes we can” slogan into it.
“When somebody at your table tells you that you’ve been hogging all of the side dishes, you can’t have any more, I hope that you respond with a creed that sums up the spirit of a hungry people: ‘Yes, we cran,'” he joked… if you can call that a joke.
One joke that was much better than his “dad jokes” came during a September 2016 National Medals of the Arts and Humanities ceremony. Morgan Freeman couldn’t be there because he “undoubtedly is off playing a black president again.” Obama joked. “He never lets me have my moment.”
4. Trump Wasn’t a Fan of Melissa McCarthy’s ‘SNL’ Take on Sean Spicer
Some have wondered if President Donald Trump has a sense of humor. Roger Stone told Business Insider that Trump has a “self-deprecating” sense of humor and a great memory, so he brings up old jokes when he meets someone again. “He’s just a lot of fun,” Stone said.
However, Trump reportedly did not laugh when Melissa McCarthy played Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live. “Trump doesn’t like his people to look weak,” a Trump donor told Politico in February. Trump surprisingly didn’t tweet after a February episode, and Spider said McCarthy “needs to slow down on the gum chewing; way too many pieces in there.”
McCarthy’s performance reportedly put Spicer’s job in jeopardy. The Press Secretary resigned in July and was replaced by Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
5. Abraham Lincoln Had a Sense of Humor, Even During the Civil War
Since President Abraham Lincoln steered the country through the Civil War, it’s hard to imagine him having much time to joke about anything. However, The Library of Congress noted that Lincoln did have a sense of humor. For example, Lincoln said that during the Black Hawk War in 1832, he didn’t see any fighting Indians, but had “a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes.” His sense of humor was so well known that his opponents wrote a song called “Hey! Uncle Abe, are you joking yet?”
Lincoln also loved telling anecdotal stories with humor. In fact, The Lehmran Institute notes that Lincoln read a story from a humorist before drafting the Emancipation Proclamation. His cabinet didn’t approve.
“Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do,” Lincoln reportedly replied.