Paulsen, Pat (1928-1997)

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Paulsen, Pat (1928-1997)

Performing perhaps the longest parody skit in history, comic Pat Paulsen ran for president five times between 1968 and 1996. A performer and comedy writer with progressive, rabble-rousing political leanings, Paulsen ran on a satirical platform, which, though relentlessly silly, drew serious attention to the real lack of choices in the American political arena. As Paulsen often said, he represented "the citizen who wants to vote for 'none of the above."'

Pat Paulsen was born in South Bend, Washington, and raised in Point Bonita, California. He majored in forestry at City College in San Francisco, but his career as a ranger was derailed when he joined the Ric-Y-Tic Players performing troupe. He was performing and working odd jobs as a Fuller Brush salesman and a gypsum miner when he was discovered in the mid-1960s by Tom and Dick Smothers. The Smothers Brothers, quirky comics who did leftist political comedy interspersed with droll dialog and farcical antics, hired Paulsen as a writer for their new weekly television show on CBS.

Paulsen spent three years on The Smothers Brothers Show, writing satirical songs and much of the political comedy that kept the show in a constant battle with the CBS censors. He also participated in sketches and performed his own monologues, always with his trademark deadpan expression and loopy, off-the-wall sensibility. In 1968, he won an Emmy for his work on the show.

It was Tom and Dick Smothers too, who first suggested Paulsen run for president in the highly contentious 1968 election. Paulsen reportedly responded, "Why not? I can't dance." Paulsen began his tradition of pointing out the ludicrous contradictions in American politics then, running as a candidate of the Straight Talkin' American Government Party, or STAG Party. He opposed sex education ("Let kids learn it where we did—in the gutter."), and promised to fight poverty ("… by shooting four hundred beggars a week"). Paulsen's mock campaign was so successful that he went on television to remind people not to really vote for him. Even so, he got 200,000 votes in the 1968 election.

The Smothers Brothers Show was taken off the air in 1970, at least partly because of its continued volatile political content. Paulsen had a short stint on his own network show on ABC in 1970, and when that failed, he moved to Cloverdale, California, where he and his second wife bought a five hundred acre farm and started a winery.

Paulsen's life continued to provide fodder for comedy and for the hang-dog expression he always wore. Even at the winery, he expressed his comedic sensibility—one of his basic wines was called Refrigerator White, and came with Paulsen's mournful face on the label. The winery also featured the satirical Pat Paulsen Museum to entertain visitors. Even thus trading on his fame, the winery was not a successful business, and Paulsen was soon drowning in debt and back-tax penalties. Even his lucky moments were dogged by disaster. His third marriage ended in divorce when he caught his wife embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from him, and once while on a comedy tour in Reno, when he won a $300,000 jackpot on a quarter slot machine, the IRS stepped in to claim $285,000 of it. By 1986, Paulsen was forced to sell the winery and go back on the road with his comedy.

Through it all, Paulsen kept his sense of the ridiculous. He continued to perform, both his comedy act and theatrical roles, and he continued to campaign for president every four years. Beginning in 1972, his name was actually on the ballot. For the baby boomers who had nurtured their rebellious politics each week watching the Smothers Brothers, Paulsen was a comforting and irreverent reminder that rebellion still existed even in the complacent 1980s and the cynical 1990s. Paulsen last ran in 1996, under the campaign slogan, "United we sit."

A ubiquitous participant in American political history and popular culture during the latter third of the twentieth century, Pat Paulsen died in 1997 in Tijuana, Mexico, where he was receiving alternative medical treatments for cancer.

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Paulsen, Pat. How to Wage a Successful Campaign for the Presidency. Los Angeles, Nash Publishing, 1972.

Sanz, Cynthia. "Stalked by Tax Woes, Pat Paulsen Tries to Keep his Whine Sparkling." People. 19 November 1990, 173.