One of the many criticisms leveled at President Donald Trump after he assumed office in January 2017 was that he seemed too thin-skinned about being mocked or made fun of, most notably exemplified by Trump’s issuing multiple complaining tweets about actor Alec Baldwin’s spoofing portrayals of him on Saturday Night Live.
This behavior was soon contrasted online by the circulation of an image macro supposedly demonstrating that President Lyndon Johnson’s response to being repeatedly satirized by the Smothers Brothers on their comedy-variety television series in the late 1960s was to send the duo a letter lauding their humor — even if it came at the expense of poking fun at his administration:
After being trashed numerous times by the Smothers Brothers, President Johnson wrote them, “It is part of the price of leadership of this great and free nation to be the target of clever satirists. You have given the gift of laughter to our people. May we never grow so somber or self-important that we fail to appreciate the humor in our lives.”
Although the letter seemed too pat to some viewers to be real, its origins weren’t difficult to verify. NPR’s “Fresh Air” had recently profiled the Smothers Brothers’ “biting satire … 50 years [on],” and in the course of that segement they noted:
A skit poking fun at LBJ got the president to call CBS Chairman William Paley in the middle of the night to complain — which, in turn, led to Paley asking the show to ease up on its presidential satire. In return, Paley agreed to break the 17-year blacklist on folksinger Pete Seeger, who appeared in 1967 to sing, as part of an anti-war medley, a new song he’d written called “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” an obvious allegory about the Vietnam War and Johnson himself.
President Johnson may have been disgruntled with CBS at the time the Smothers Brothers were on the air and using him as the target of satire, but when their program aired its final installment on 20 April 1969 — by which time Johnson was out of office — he had eased up somewhat in his viewpoint:
On their final show, Dick read a letter he and Tom had gotten from former President Johnson. These days, President Trump responds to Saturday Night Live skits with angry tweets. Back then, Johnson, reflecting on his treatment by the Smothers Brothers, responded by writing:
“It is part of the price of leadership of this great and free nation to be the target of clever satirists. You have given the gift of laughter to our people. May we never grow so somber or self-important that we fail to appreciate the humor in our lives.”
Mention of the letter also appeared in the 2009 book Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’:
Bianculli, David. “50 Years Later, the Biting Satire of ‘The Smothers Brothers’ Still Resonates.”
NPR. 10 February 2017.
Bianculli, David. Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.’
Simon and Schuster, 2009. ISBN 1-439-10953-2 (p. 317).