Friday, November 22, 2013

Man, poor Vaughn Meader


November 22 will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. While that shocking event would have historical consequences and ramifications that would ripple throughout the country and the world; perhaps the most unexpected consequence of the death of President Kennedy would be the almost simultaneous death of the career of comedian Vaughn Meader

Quick trivia question, what album won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1963? I guess if you didn't know you may have inferred from the title and above picture that it was indeed Vaughn Meader's comedy record "The First Family" (and as bizarre as it is for the Album of the Year to go to a comedy album, this was actually the second such winner. Only two years prior Bob Newhart brought home the prize, plus the Best New Artist award!). Released in November of 1962, the album featured a series of recorded sketches with Meader giving his uncanny impersonation of JFK dealing with family, his cabinet, other leaders, etc (it didn't really blow me away but maybe you just had to have been there to really get it). It would go on to sell over 7 million copies, becoming one of the best selling comedy albums of all time. A sequel album came out early the following year.

It sort of blows my mind how apparently successful this guy become all on the back of one trick. I mean who bases their entire act on the impersonation of one person (aside from maybe Yakov Smirnoff who barely survived the untimely death of his act when the Soviet Union fell)? For all the acclaim and popularity Tina Fey's Sarah Palin impersonation garnered circa 2008, it was just one facet of her talent. I feel like if someone like Vaughn Meader came up now he would at best be a viral youtube sensation. I guess he'd have a whole series of Obama sketches on his channel. If he's lucky he might get to briefly meet the President. He would be nowhere near as big has Meader was in 1962. In his mid 20s, Meader found himself a multi-platnum, award winning comedian with magazine covers and television appearances; a meteoric rise to popularity not unlike his target of parody.

Then of course by November of the following year the President was gone and so was his career. The story goes that when legendary stand up Lenny Bruce came out to perform a set hours after news broke of Kennedy's death, he walked on stage, stood there for a few minutes, and sadly said, "Man, poor Vaughn Meader."  Copies of his albums were pulled, television appearances were cancelled. Having built his entire career on his spot on impersonation of JFK and being so thoroughly typecast, there was no other opportunities available. After initially sinking into depression, drugs, and alcoholism, he eventually settled into a modest career as local bluegrass and country musician in his native Maine (now that I think about it he must be the best selling recording artist from Maine. What's his competition? Ray LaMontagne? Howie Day?) and passed away in relative obscurity in 2004.   

I find the tragic tale of Vaughn Meader beyond fascinating. I recall a few years ago that Bill Hader was involved with a possible biopic, but there hasn't been much word since. There's potential there for a really interesting film. It's such a stark example of the unpredictable and extremely tenuous nature of fame. George Burns was right, show business is a hideous bitch goddess. Here you have this young comedian who stumbles onto the amazing windfall of being able to perfectly imitate the popular new President and it turning out to be a runaway hit with the public; but then the one singular act that the public demanded of him was the reason why the public had to reject him en mass. 

So I guess the lesson to be learned here could be that fame should never be taken for granted and that the possibility of it all falling apart hangs tenuously like the Sword of Damocles over one's head. Or maybe one should workshop some new characters/material just in case.

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