While Colbert’s satirical political operation may be the wealthiest and most sophisticated in U.S. history, he’s not the only comedian who has mined material out of a quixotic bid for America’s highest office. Seventy-two years ago, with the country recovering slowly from a massive depression and on the brink of war, a lonely nation turned its eyes to Gracie Allen, a tiny woman with a high-pitched voice who offered voters, for a few buoyant months, a truly unique political platform.
A San Francisco native, Allen got her start in vaudeville, dancing with her older sister and then performing comedy bits with her partner-turned-husband George Burns. In real life, Allen was brainy and clever. Paired with Burns, she crafted a persona that was scatterbrained and obtuse. “The secret of Gracie’s humor,” Burns once said, “was her ability to deliver the most incredible lines with absolute sincerity.” (New York Times, August 29, 1964.) After a guest spot on the BBC, fellow comedian Eddie Cantor invited the duo to make select radio appearances on his show in the States. Cantor’s audience lapped up their goofy banter. Before long, Burns and Allen inked a contract to start their own NBC radio show as well as appear in movies for Paramount Pictures. The ensuing exposure transformed the vaudevillian and her cigar-chomping hubby into national stars.
In the late 1930s, with comedy radio shows still generating big ratings, on-air performers tried countless gimmicks to broaden their listener base. One day, knitting at her home in Beverly Hills, Allen turned to Burns and casually mentioned that she thought it might be fun to run for president in 1940. On February 7, during their regular broadcast, Gracie told her audience she was contemplating the idea, too. They roared with approval. Two months later, on April 21, she formally entered the fray, announcing to a Texas audience that she hoped “you'll vote for me, at least once.”
Allen’s campaign, such as it was, was more absurdist than satirical, relying on word play and the candidate’s unorthodox delivery to generate laughs.* Allen represented the Surprise Party, an affiliation cemented as an infant. (“My mother was a Democrat, my father a Republican, and I was born a Surprise.”) The party’s mascot was a Kangaroo named Laura, adopted because 1940 was a leap year, and its presumptuous slogan -- "It’s in the bag!” -- was printed on sew-on campaign buttons, an innovation Allen pioneered to discourage supporters from changing their minds before Election Day. Once Allen and her team realized their joke bid had serious legs, she committed to the character fully, jumping repeatedly and sometimes unannounced onto popular radio shows to broadcast her views on the day’s hot topics. President Gracie would welcome foreign relations "so long as they bring their own bedding and don't stay too long." Under her administration, Allen promised the government would offer free correspondence courses “so that people who can't find jobs in their own line will soon be without jobs in three or four different types of work.” And she assured the public she would hold no fireside chats from the White House between April 15 and October 15, unlike incumbent Franklin Roosevelt. “It is asking too much and I don’t know how President Roosevelt stands it,” she quipped. “Washington is awfully hot in summer.”
In May, with Burns at her side, Allen embarked on a 34-city whistle-stop tour from Los Angeles to Omaha, stopping along the way to make stump speeches from the back of her train. The journey concluded at the Ak-Sar-Ben Auditorium, where 10,000 delegates nominated her unanimously for president. (Her ticket had no vice-presidential candidate because Gracie had warned that she would tolerate no vice in her administration.) According to a United Press correspondent on hand (May 19, 1940), the first promise Allen made during her acceptance speech, which NBC radio aired live, was to bring Maine and Vermont back into the Union. A worthy goal, indeed.
Following the Surprise Party Convention, Allen let her campaign peter out. That summer, she wrote a book of advice for future candidates called "How to Become President," which a Los Angeles Times review (July 7, 1940) called an "effective antidote to the various viruses emanating from the current campaigns." The popularity of the Burns & Allen show soared, and in November, on the day President Roosevelt won his third term in office, Allen earned a few thousand write-in votes for the highest post in the country. Reflecting in 2008, Allen and Burns’ colleague Robert Easton suggested that their dogged dedication to silliness “brought a much needed sense of comedy relief to very tense times.” If Colbert's SuperPac existed in 1940, I’m confident its director would have cut a few ads for little Gracie.