Article Thumbnail

The Best (and Worst) Pop Culture in Modern Election History

The midterms are upon us — so enjoy the campaign songs, rapping politicians and assassination jokes time almost forgot

Election Day ought to be a national holiday. For one reason, it would allow lots of people who normally have to work on a Tuesday an opportunity to get to the polls. For another, after you’ve performed your civic duty, you could kick back and binge all of the movies, TV shows and songs featured in our salute to the most memorable politically themed entertainment ever put to film and vinyl/CD/cassette tape. We skipped the obvious stuff — we’re pretty sure you’re aware already that Morgan Freeman has played the president a lot — and sought out some of the weirder and more amusing nooks and crannies of popular culture. (We’d almost forgotten that That’s My Bush! was ever a thing.)

Worst Campaign-Event Entrance: Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation

In Season Four of the much-missed NBC sitcom, Amy Poehler’s ambitious, civic-minded character decides to run for city council. Those 22 episodes are a great pre-election binge — nailing the optimism, emotion and tension of the political season — but the single funniest moment might have occurred during “The Comeback Kid,” when Leslie tries to give her nascent campaign a shot of adrenaline. Instead, everything goes wrong, including a hilariously disastrous stump speech at an ice rink.

Best Pre-Election Prayers: Election

When candidates go to bed the night before an election, what do they ask from the Almighty? Director Alexander Payne offers some possibilities in his terrific 1999 satire, which finds three teenagers vying for student body president, including the scarily driven Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon). Couple thoughts about these prayers, though. First, God probably doesn’t like it when you call your opponent a cunt. Also, more people should be grateful to the Man Upstairs for “good health, nice parents, a nice truck and what I’m told is a large penis.”

Most Succinct Encapsulation of American Politics: “Treehouse of Horror VII,” The Simpsons (20 seconds)

In this 1996 Halloween episode, evil space aliens Kang and Kodos kidnap presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole and go in disguise in their place on the campaign trail. Problem is, these extraterrestrials don’t understand human beings or their political preferences. But they pick it up pretty quickly. Twenty-two years later, “Bob Dole”’s stump speech would still play with most Americans.

Best Campaign Song for Jesus: “Christ for President” by Billy Bragg & Wilco

In the late 1990s, British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg and Wilco teamed up to add music to lyrics left behind by legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie, who died in 1967. One of those tunes was “Christ for President,” a tongue-in-cheek campaign ditty that suggested that the Son of God was a better choice for the Oval Office than any of the other candidates. Jesus’ platform: cast the moneychangers out of the temple; give everybody a job and a pension; feed the poor; end all wars. I dunno: This Jesus fellow sounds like a dirty hippie.

Scariest Depiction of Undecided Voters: “The Undecided Voters,” Saturday Night Live

Every election, the news media will spend some time talking to so-called “undecided voters,” trying to figure out why they haven’t picked a candidate after months of hearing from both contenders. We’re meant to be impressed with the genuine anguish these voters face on their way to the polls, but the sad truth is, most times, they’re just low-information voters — which, depending on how charitable you want to be, might just meant they’re not very bright.

That’s how Saturday Night Live interpreted it, anyway, in this savage 2012 fake ad in which a group of smug, defensive undecided voters let us know what’s on their minds. Spoiler Alert: They’re not sure what oil is. Also, can women vote or what?

Best Presidential Sitcom Theme Song: That’s My Bush!

Before 9/11, most Americans thought of George W. Bush as a genial idiot: Sure, the Republicans stole the election but, hey, maybe we’ll get some laughs watching this moron stumble around the White House. That impulse inspired South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone to create That’s My Bush!, which was a spoof of Dubya’s dumbness in the form of a knowingly clichéd, three-camera sitcom. Every hoary trope was on display, including the presence of an overly cheerful, inane theme song. That’s My Bush! only ran for a couple months in early 2001 — which is just as well considering that Comedy Central probably would have had to cancel it after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Worst Rapping White Congressman: Senator Jay Billington Bulworth in Bulworth

Director and star Warren Beatty wanted to make a movie about a professional politician who snaps, and finally, tells is like it is. 1998’s Bulworth is a violently uneven, messy satire, full of dead-on attacks on special interests and government corruption. Unfortunately, it also features Beatty’s senator character rapping a lot. He is a terrible rapper.

Greatest Swearing: Any episode of Veep

After establishing himself as one of the great satirists with his British series The Thick of It (and its follow-up film In the Loop), writer-director Armando Iannucci came to America (and HBO) to give us Veep, about the most venal, vain and terrible human beings — all of whom work in Washington. There are so many great episodes, but I prefer any YouTube collection of individual insults, which are full of so much glorious vulgarity that it’s almost musical.

God, that was terrific. Let’s watch some more.

Best Bad Political Comedy With a Great Premise: Welcome to Mooseport

Too often, Hollywood tries to remake great and/or popular movies. This is a bad idea: What studios ought to do more is take a second stab at films with clever setups but terrible execution. (This is known as “The Ocean’s Eleven Principle”: The Frank Sinatra movie had a cool hook that the Steven Soderbergh remake completely improved upon.) 2004’s Welcome to Mooseport is a worthy candidate for refurbishing. The premise: A retired American president (Gene Hackman) moves to a small town to relax, write and enjoy his golden years. But once he starts showing interest in a local guy’s (Ray Romano) girlfriend (Maura Tierney) — who’s getting tired of waiting for her fella to propose — the two men find themselves locking horns as they both run for mayor.

The movie isn’t any good — is that the reason why Hackman hasn’t made a film since? — but it’s a clever idea that deserves to be revisited.

Creepiest Ronald Reagan Impression: Spitting Image

We think of puppet shows as kid-friendly, benign entertainment. Then there was Spitting Image, a 1980s British series that satirized politics and culture, featuring puppets that were grotesque caricatures of the show’s comedic targets. (In the States, the show was probably most famous because Genesis tapped its creative team for their “Land of Confusion” video.)

One of Spitting Image’s favorite punching bags was Ronald Reagan, who was portrayed as a doddering, racist old fool whose best friend was the ape Bonzo from the president’s 1951 film. Say what you want about something like South Park, but Spitting Image was downright nasty in its takedowns of people in power. And the Reagan puppet was so wrinkled and inhuman that it could give you nightmares, which was most certainly the point.

Funniest Presidential Assassination Joke: Chris Rock, Bring the Pain

On the stand-up comic’s terrific 1996 special, he explains why there’s never going to be a black vice president: “because some black guy would just kill the [white] president.” It’s not funny to joke about assassination, but this is the exception.

Best Vampire-Hunting President: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

In 2012, Daniel Day-Lewis electrified audiences with his portrayal of our 16th president in Lincoln. Also that year, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter came out. Based on the popular Seth Grahame-Smith novel, the action-horror movie imagined Honest Abe as an ass-kicking machine who wanted to free the slaves and also slay some bloodsuckers. It’s a very silly movie, and yet, I have a real fondness for its gonzo weirdness. Plus, it’s actually sorta touchingly sincere in its depiction of Lincoln as a champion of the people. Seriously, I get a little sad when the film inevitably gets around to Lincoln’s assassination. No, Abe! Don’t go in that buggy to the theater! Stay with us and keep hunting vampires!

Best Song About Impeaching the President: “Impeach the President” by the Honey Drippers

In 1973, funk group the Honey Drippers dropped a song that expressed their displeasure with President Richard Nixon. They were really ambiguous about their intentions, naming the song “Impeach the President.” It wasn’t a hit, but the tune ended up having a long afterlife, with plenty of hip-hop acts sampling it, including De La Soul, Nas and N.W.A. And since Trump’s election, I see it pop up on my timeline every once in a while.

Most Frighteningly Accurate Depiction of What Winning an Election Probably Feels Like: The Candidate

Because campaigns are years-long operations — each day focused on the sole task of defeating your opponent — it can be very easy to forget what the ultimate goal is, which is to hold elected office and serve your constituents. I’ve never run, but I can only imagine that if I won, after all that campaigning, it would be inevitable that there would be a moment of elation — and then a sinking feeling of “Oh god, now what?”

The power of 1972’s The Candidate stems entirely from its ending, which encapsulates that feeling in its final moments. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably know how the movie winds up: U.S. Senate Democratic candidate Bill McKay (Robert Redford) wins a hard-fought election, and its ending finds him slowly coming to grips with what that victory means. You may even know the movie’s final line, but the whole scene really is a chiller.