Wednesday, 14 November 2018

The Satirist Who Was a Good Paintbrush

Mock presidential candidate Pat Paulsen actually won an election.

In July 1969, the DeMolay youth group’s annual meeting in Kansas City unanimously elected him Honorary International Master Councillor. Paulsen spoke to the teenaged crowd. And so did someone else—a later, for-real presidential wannabe, Pat Buchanan, who was then a “special assistant” to president Richard Nixon. Paulsen and Buchanan are, to the say the least, worlds apart politically.

Paulsen’s television career skyrocketed in 1967 thanks to the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Paulsen was the Stephen Colbert of the day. He satirised the right wing by playing a right-wing editorial reader, effectively summing up the Smothers’ viewpoint on a subject (though the Smothers were actually anti-establishment, and the establishment was Democrat in 1967).

Cleverly, Paulsen must have realised you could go only so far speaking in favour of a cause and making it seem ridiculous. He hit on the idea of a phoney presidential run through 1968; he actually appeared at the Democratic convention that year, an event noted more for TV cameras capturing police violence than selecting a replacement for president Lyndon Johnson.

However, before any of this, Paulsen was known, if at all, for what may have been a piece of performance art. Here’s an unbylined wire service story from March 4, 1966.
One Artist Who Uses His Head
GLENDALE, Calif. (AP) - Artist Pat Paulsen isn't one of those persons who can't face his work.
To the contrary. Paulsen, 35, plunged into his art with gusto, beard, nose and hair.
Using his head, the San Franciscan eschews more traditional means of applying pigment to canvas. And an exhibition of his "cranial painting" is now on display at a Glendale theater restaurant.
Paulsen begins by spreading a blank canvas on the floor and placing several mounds of brightly colored pigments on the canvas. He then dips his beard into the primary "soul" color and he's ready.
The first stroke is a sensual curving jaw swirl, then the free-form motion of a deftly maneuvered ear, then the sharp visual staccato of the nose daub, a cheek-jaw swirl, an elevated nose daub and a forceful jaw sweep.
With a rope from an overhead tripod he then lashes one foot and hoists himself upside-down. Hovering over the canvas, he dips the top of his head into the color, spins, swings and dances, climaxing the masterpiece.
Says one reviewer:
"Pat Paulsen is not a great painter, but he is a good paintbrush."

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour debuted on February 5, 1967, and aired Sundays at 9. A month earlier, Paulsen had been scraping the paint off windows in a housing project for $2 an hour. Now, he had become an overnight sensation with his deadpan, uncomfortably-delivered fake commentaries. The wire services started writing about him. First, a story from May 13th from the National Enterprise Association.
Pat Paulsen Instant Hit On TV Show

HOLLYWOOD (NEA)—The night sad-faced comedian Pat Paulsen read his first editorial about auto safety, on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS-TV, the producers counted on possible audience mail response.
But all they found a few days later in the post office box they had rented for the purpose was a note reading, "Please see postmaster."
When they saw the postmaster they were astonished.
No post office box anywhere was big enough to hold what the postmaster was holding for them —a stack of 17,000 fan letters.
MOST OF THE letters were from still-laughing people hailing Pat Paulsen and asking for more of him. He has since delivered other editorials (about littering and about firearms) on The Smothers Brothers Show, on which he is a semiregular.
He's on the show because the Smothers Brothers think Pat is "one of the funniest comedians in the country." Pat, you see, can't be serious about anything, including the vital statistics asked of him by the CBS public relations department. His answers were:
Height—9 feet.
Weight—82 pounds.
Birthdate—July 6, 1731.
UNTIL NOW 5-foot-8, 130-pound, 37-year-old Pat Paulsen, who was born near Aberdeen, Wash., has been knocking around on the small night club circuit where his routine includes kidding folk singers and giving impressions and a bit he calls "Cranial Painting."
With nose, jaw and ears daubed with paint, Pat hangs by his heels from a tripod and paints with what he describes as "the nose dab, the jaw swirl, and the free form ear touch."
Off stage, Pat is as versatile as he is on. He writes all of his own material and penned both "Chocolate" and "Mediocre Fred" for the Smothers Brothers. "The latter," he dead-pans, "is the story of my life."
PAT HAS a singing voice almost as big as Jim Nabors' but he laments, "When I try a serious song something happens. I can't control myself. I turn it into a comedy routine."
About himself, Pat says:
"I come on stage with the assurance of a concert pianist and then immediately proceed to fall apart at the seams. My career has been growing in leaps and bounds, bounds and leaps, fits and starts. I may always look sad but I'm a happy person who has had many happy years with the possible exception of 1958 when, unfortunately, I passed away."
This column is from the TV Key service of King Features Syndicate, dated May 27th. It shows, if nothing else, Paulsen knew how to get publicity, if not gainful employment.
How Pat Paulsen Caught On As Smothers Bros. Regular

Hollywood—One thing about the Smothers Brothers — they're unpredictable.
Like other young headliners with a new variety show, Tom and Dick made the usual noises about highlighting new talent, and, instead of dropping the idea, the brothers introduced a sad-faced comic unknown, Pat Paulsen, to the TV world Sunday nights on CBS.
Paulsen came on as a skinny tennis champ who looked believable until he demonstrated a few ungainly strokes, and later he appeared as the show editorialist, uttering silly diatribes.
Paulsen's put-on act and editorial delivery scored enough aces to warrant return visits until now Pat is considered a regular even though nothing to that effect is in writing. As a clincher, the put-on artist just signed with the brothers' manager, so he doesn't need a contract.
After earning his stripes playing strip joints, go-go palaces, beach hangouts and clubs in New York, San Francisco and Southern California, Paulsen was finally discovered by the brothers performing his tennis act at The Ice House in Pasadena. Pat had known Tom Smothers "vaguely" in San Francisco. The comic made contact again when the boys recorded his song, "Chocolate," and were trying to trace author credits.
• • •
ORIGINALLY, Tom Smothers intended to deliver the weekly editorials which would fit his non sequiture [sic] style, but after catching Paulsen's act, Tom pushed the monologues off on the unknown who tries them out during his current run at The Ice House.
At this stage, Paulsen takes nothing for granted, though he isn't overly worried about bookings for once. The new managers will take care of that, and may put Pat on the Smothers Brothers Las Vegas club act this summer before the gang returns for the fall TV season.
Up to the TV exposure, Paulsen's bids for fame have come from hoaxes designed to attract attention of newspaper wire services. A few years ago at The Ice House, Pat appeared as a cranial painter, a dedicated artist who drew with his long nose and wide forehead.
As a watered down version of Gregory Peck, Pat looked like a crazy artist, and he played his role with dignity, forming a school for cranial painting This foolishness attracted local network cameras and the wire services.
"We had 40 kids down on their knees smudging paint on the floor with their faces," said Pat. "It was beautiful. You can't believe the glory in rubbing faces in paint."
• • •
PAULSEN recreated the same act in Vancouver, British Columbia, outside on a sidewalk, rhythmically daubing away while a jazz band played in the background. He was arrested for the publicity stunt and charges were dismissed. The club owner was overjoyed with the publicity and news space.
Attempting to top this stunt, Pat walked on water for photographers, gingerly treading upon a chair hidden below the surface. Again the wire services bit, filming the comedian taking two steps before he plunged to the bottom.
The idea came from a similar act across the Pacific performed by an Indian mystic who charged admission and then failed to deliver. Pat took a more reasonable stand, earning news comments from friendly reporters, like "Paulsen walked on water faster than normally."
It is doubtful whether such hoaxes will take place on The Smothers Brothers Show. Pat uses the writers' material, saving his own for club dates. But he's thinking all the time, and jots down one-line gags on a pad he carries around, little quickies which can be used to put down hecklers.
• • •
THESE WERE important in the beginning when some engagements turned out to be duds. "At first I used to write out jokes which seemed very funny to me on paper, but turned out to be flops to the audience," said Pat. "That's when I needed the heckler-stoppers."
Pat would walk out and look everywhere but at the audience as he went through his routines. Silence stopped this habit as he learned to relax with a series of non-jokes before attempting a song. "It was a little five minute routine that worked for seven years," he said, "and I never had to sing."
The Paulsen repertoire has expanded considerably over the learning years in tiny clubs, and the performer can tell jokes, offer put-ons, imitate 50 different types and look at his audience.
"Nothing bothers me any more," says the new TV find. "I can get laughs anyplace except at home. I don't try out material in the living room because my wife doesn't find, me amusing, and that's a blessing."
Paulsen may have lost the U.S. presidential election campaign in 1968, but he did win something—an Emmy for special achievement. Actually, he and Art Carney both won. Both were unexpectedly the victims of a screw-up on the Emmy telecast on NBC. The director called for a split screen of Carney in New York and Paulsen in Los Angeles. That part worked fine. But neither knew what to do or, apparently, even if they were on the air. They kind of stared around for a bit. Being an Emmy-winner, Paulsen went on to host the Smothers’ summer show in 1968 with singer Glen Campbell, then was given his own Pat Paulsen’s Half a Comedy Hour on ABC at the start of 1970. Despite a writing corps that included Steve Martin, Bob Arbogast, Bob Einstein and Tom Koch, it was taken off the air after four months. Paulsen rejoined the Smothers on a new ABC show on July 8th that lasted until mid-September.

Paulsen continued to stay in the news with phoney presidential runs, but he wasn’t doing terribly much television any more. On April 2, 1997, the Associated Press reported Paulsen had inoperable brain cancer that had spread from his colon. On the 24th, he was dead. But his deadpan character still inspires political and social satirists today.


  1. Perhaps the most interesting segments of the HALF A COMEDY HOUR episodes - and fitting into the raison d'être of the Tralfaz blog - was when Paulsen conducted an interview with Foghorn Leghorn and Daffy Duck. Take note of the use of the "modern" rendition of the "Merry-Go-Round Broke Down" from the Seven Art-era Warner cartoons.

  2. I got to meet and hang out with Pat Paulsen for a week in 1988 when he appeared at the local comedy club. Funny and inventive, and always had time for fans who came up to meet him. Near the end of his stay, I asked him for an autograph. He signed a promotional coaster "To Rob: Fuck You. Love, Pat Paulsen." To this very day, I have lost that coaster.