A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

The Funniest Joke Told by 23 U.S. Presidents

The President of the United States is one of the most powerful people in the world—and these quips prove that presidents can sometimes be one of the funniest, too.

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James Madison
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James Madison: A jokester to the end

President Madison, our nation’s fourth president, got laughs even on his deathbed with the line,  “I always talk better lying down.”  You can impress your friends by learning these 50 facts about the 50 states!.

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martin van buren
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Martin Van Buren: Exit laughing

Van Buren’s presidency was filled with financial, political, and ideological challenges. In 1840, he lost his bid for a second term to William Henry Harrison, failing to carry even his home state (New York). About his disappointing and difficult presidency, Martin Van Buren made no bones about it. “The two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it,” he’s quoted as saying. Did you know Van Buren was the first American-born president? Here are 44 other astonishing facts about our nation’s leaders.

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john tyler
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John Tyler: Flirting with popularity

Tyler, the first president to ascend from the office of Vice President upon the death of the elected president, had a way with the witty words. “Popularity may aptly be compared to a coquette—the more you woo her, the more apt is she to elude your embrace,” he said in a message to the House of Representatives in 1816.

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franklin pierce
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Franklin Pierce: A slogan for the win

Our 14th president was little-known until he ran on the catchy slogan, “We Polked You in ’44. We Shall Pierce You in ’52,” a reference to 11th President James K. Polk, a fellow Democrat. It’s often cited as one of the ten winningest presidential campaign slogans.

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abraham lincoln
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Abraham Lincoln: This one stinks

Abraham Lincoln has the honor of being named the funniest president by Senator Bob Dole in his Great Presidential Wit (…I Wish I Was In The Book). And one of his funniest lines ever has to be, “What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself.” You also won’t want to miss these 14 timeless quotes by Abraham Lincoln.

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Ulysses S. grant
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Ulysses S. Grant: A dry sense of humor

Grant, the 18th American president, once said, “I only know two tunes, one of them is ‘Yankee Doodle’ the other isn’t.” Grant, who served as general and commander of the Union armies during the American Civil War, may have been making a reference to the fact that his life was devoted primarily to our nation.

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Chester A. Arthur: The press is doing its job

President Arthur shared this quip at a Republican banquet when dishing about how his ticket won the vote in Indiana, “If it were not for the reporters, I would tell you the truth.”

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Theodore Roosevelt: Still true today…

There was no lost love between Theodore Roosevelt and Congress, especially after he famously said, “When they call the roll in the Senate, the senators do not know whether to answer ‘present’ or ‘not guilty.'” Find out what was banned from the Roosevelt White House (as well as what was banned from the White House by 10 other presidents).

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William Howard Taft: Telling it like it is

President Taft was always a “favorite son” in politics, having been appointed to offices by both President McKinley and President Roosevelt. Nevertheless, he felt a great disdain for politics. “Politics, when I am in it, makes me sick,” he said, at once humorously and without the slightest hint of humor.

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Woodrow Wilson: A turn of a phrase

President Wilson was a wonderful speaker and knew exactly how to lob a barb without sounding petty. A great example of this was when he spoke to the World’s Salesmanship Congress in 1916. Regarding his relationship with Republicans, he quipped, “I have long enjoyed the friendship and companionship of Republicans because I am by instinct a teacher and I would like to teach them something.” Did you know that Woodrow Wilson kept White House landscaping costs down by bringing in a flock of sheep?

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Calvin Coolidge: A man of few words

President Coolidge’s wit was once described as sharp and cold as a frost-etching on a windowpane, according to the New England Historical Society. A truly stereotypical New Englander, Coolidge was as thrifty with his words as he was with taxpayer money. In fact, that was what made it so funny when a woman sitting next to him at a dinner party said, “I bet I can get more than two words out of you,” and Coolidge replied, “You. Lose.”

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Herbert Hoover: So funny it hurts

“Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the National Debt,” said President Hoover, in his address to the Nebraska Republican Conference in 1936. Read on for 18 more times the president was the funniest person in America.

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Franklin D. Roosevelt: Only one question

When Eleanor Roosevelt left the White House to visit a penitentiary, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked where she was, writes NPR. She’d gone to “prison,” he was told. Clever chap that he was, President Roosevelt replied, “I’m not surprised. But what for?”

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Harry S. Truman: Difficult choices

“My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician,” Harry S. Truman is quoted as having said. “And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.” It didn’t get much more plain-speaking than that for the plain-speaking president of whom Washington columnist once said, “Since Harry Truman left town, almost no one has spoken his mind.”

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John F. Kennedy: What Nixon can do for your country

It was far too easy, but he went for it. “Do you realize the responsibility I carry?” President Kennedy once joked during his presidential campaign in 1960, “I’m the only person standing between Richard Nixon and the White House.”

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Lyndon B. Johnson: Taking the piss out of politics

It has been said that President Johnson had “the manners of a barnyard dog,” so it’s not surprising that his joke is off-color. ”Did you ever think that making a speech on economics is a lot like pissing down your leg?” he once asked economist Kenneth Galbraith. “It seems hot to you, but it never does to anyone else.”

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Gerald Ford: Hit them where it hurts

President Ford found his target at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association dinner in 1974, saying,  “At a time when funds for the defense budget may be cut, it’s comforting to see so many of the big guns from your industry still getting loaded.”

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Jimmy Carter: Self-deprecating elder statesman

President Carter was the butt of many jokes during his presidency, but he gave as good as he got (to himself!). After he left office, he didn’t lose his sense of humor. Take, for example, this gem that appears in Time’s roundup of best modern presidential quips: “My esteem in this country has gone up substantially. It is very nice now when people wave at me, they use all their fingers.” These before and after photos of U.S. presidents show how the responsibilities of the office take a toll.

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Ronald Reagan: Wit under pressure

When President Reagan was shot in a failed assassination attempt, he quipped to the surgeons as he entered the operating room, “Please tell me you’re Republicans.” Check out these witty presidential burns that still make us laugh.

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George H. W. Bush: Indecisive? Undecided.

The funniest thing the first President Bush said had to be this joke, which the Washington Post reports he delivered at the 1989 Gridiron Club Dinner: “People say I’m indecisive, but I don’t know about that.”

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William Jefferson Clinton: You choose

Even President Clinton’s detractors have to admit he had a way with words, including this gem that reveals a lot about how he felt about his eight years in office: “I don’t know whether it’s the finest public housing in America or the crown jewel of the American penal system.”

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George W. Bush: The power in being the one to say it

President Bush was one of our funniest presidents, albeit sometimes by accident. But this fact didn’t escape our 43rd president’s awareness, and to prove it, he opened the 2005 White House Correspondents’ Dinner by saying, “I look forward to these dinners where I’m supposed to be funny… intentionally.” Did you know that W is also a talented painter? Here are some other talents our presidents have hid from us.

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Barack Obama: Groan…

President Obama may enjoy being a father more than he did president as evidenced by his fondness for dad jeans and dad jokes. At his final Turkey-Pardoning Ceremony, when after promising a “corny-copia” of jokes, he delivered this punny little gem: “When somebody at your table tells you that you’ve been hogging all the side dishes, you can’t have anymore,” he said, “I hope you respond with a creed that sums up the spirit of the hungry people: Yes we cran.” 

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York–based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest and in a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction, and her first full-length manuscript, "The Trust Game," was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.