IT WAS 1996. BOB DOLE WAS RUNNING for President. So was Pat Paulsen. Again. Dole floated an idea he thought would put him into the White House—slash federal taxes by 15 percent. Paulsen had his own notion. “I think we should just tip the government if it does a good job,” he said. “Fifteen percent is the standard tip, isn’t it?”
For almost 30 years, Paulsen had a Pat solution to the nation’s problems—or at least a memorable comment. When the dour-faced comic died on April 24 at age 69 in Tijuana, Mexico, where he was undergoing alternative therapy for colon and brain cancer, he took an election-year institution with him. This was, after all, the man who once told reporters, “I’ve upped my standards. Now, up yours.” During Watergate, Paulsen double-talked his way to the heart of the matter. “The fault lies not with the individual but with the system,” he intoned, “and that system is Richard Nixon.”
Paulsen’s Stassen-esque political career—he ran for President five times—began in 1968 at the urging of Tom and Dick Smothers, on whose TV show he appeared. “Why not?” he responded. “I can’t dance.”
Running as the candidate of the Straight Talkin’ American Government Party (the STAG party), “Pat would go into every city and tell the people how the rest of the country were jerks and how, when the campaign was over, he’d settle in their city,” says Ken Kragen, Paulsen’s former manager. “Toward the end of the ’68 campaign we started worrying that Pat was going to get too many votes, so we went on the air and asked people not to vote for him. Despite that, he got like 200,000 votes.”
Paulsen had a more colorful life than many of his backers imagined. Born in South Bend, Wash., and raised in Point Bonita, Calif., he served in the Marines during World War II. While at City College of San Francisco, where he majored in forestry, he joined the Ric-Y-Tic Players theater troupe. He was juggling stints as a gypsum miner, Fuller Brush man and performer when he met the Smothers Brothers in the mid-’60s. They hired him to write faux-folk songs, and in 1967 he became a regular on their show. “He was like nobody else,” says Tommy Smothers, who remained a close friend. “He was a natural put-on artist.”
After almost three seasons, the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was taken off the air. CBS became squeamish about its antic political commentary, much of it written by Paulsen, who won an Emmy in 1968. Paulsen briefly headlined on his own comedy show on ABC in 1970, the same year he and Jane (the second of his four wives and mother of his three grown children) moved the family to Cloverdale, Calif., where they opened a winery (a specialty was the $6 Refrigerator White, with Paulsen’s face on the label). Beset by financial woes, Paulsen sold the business in 1992.
“He had a few million-dollar years and he lost it all,” says his friend, comedian Johnny Dark, “but he wasn’t a whiner.” With the support of fourth wife Noma, “the love of his life,” says Dark, Paulsen continued performing after being diagnosed with cancer in 1995. Three weeks before he died, as he was leaving for Mexico and his last treatment, ex-President Gerald Ford telephoned him. Says Noma: “He called to say how much more he enjoyed Pat’s campaigns than his own.”
LYNDA WRIGHT and JEFF SCHNAUFER in Los Angeles