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Reagan: a comedy taboo?

Politics is always good for a laugh. How do you think we got to 50 series of Have I Got News For You? My own political leaning is away from them all, with a look of disgust and apprehension on my face.

Taking the piss out of politics is an easy way to get giggles. It can, however, put comedians in a compromising position. Will Ferrell just found that out. He’s dropped out of an upcoming comedy film about former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Two days after it was first announced he’d be taking the lead role and playing the President himself.

Obviously it was never going to help that the plot follows Reagan’s mental deterioration and Alzheimer’s. Or that he died as a result of that 12 years ago and can’t object to the film. OR that The New York Post’s headline was ‘Gipper Flick Fury’. Yeah, real family film material there.

So the Reagan family naturally kicked up a fuss, and Will’s agent is claiming he hadn’t firmly agreed to it in the first place. A turnabout as smooth as any career politician could accomplish.

There are better (worse?) former Presidents to make fun of, if you must. Futurama chose Nixon (his head, at least). Fox News – that beacon of impartiality – points out that Will’s already done a George ‘Dubya’ Bush impersonation on Saturday Night Live. Which is below.

Few Presidents end their term unscathed. Reagan, however, seems to be a ‘special case’ – and not in that way.

The Guardian’s done an excellent job of trying to understand why there’s been such a backlash here. And it’s probably about portraying Alzheimer’s rather than anything Reagan is fondly remembered for. It does seem that the illness is more of a problem than sending up a dead president. Mock a former POTUS all you like, but for chrissakes don’t send up a serious mental condition. That’s what Reagan’s daughter focuses on in her own open letter.

Will bowing out sets a new precedent for future American comedy. It may not have been explicitly stated before, but now it’s clear that Alzheimer’s is off limits. I’m not exactly saying we should take the mickey out of dementia. What I’m getting at here is that our comedy lines are frequently wobbly or slightly rubbed out in places.

Not to mention that there’s a film about former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner coming out soon, and it was okay to call the film Weiner. Just switch a couple of letters around and… hot dog.

The Reagan film itself has (rightly or wrongly) been languishing in development hell for some time. Having such a big name star in the lead role would’ve finally pushed things forward. There had already been live script readings in the past few months. Now? It’s far less likely Reagan will ever be made. Who’d want to take on a role that even Will Ferrell dropped like a hot potato?

Let’s face another fact here. Reagan, even with a plot about dementia and Alzheimer’s, would not become the most offensive thing Will Ferrell’s ever done. Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby? Blades of Glory? Those make Reagan sound like a sensitively-shot documentary. To drop out in respect to the Reagan family is fair. To drop out having reconsidered the subject matter would be – ahem – out of character.