Comedy meets history at President Lincoln’s Cottage in D.C.

Photo for The Washington Post by Shuran Huang
Audience members react during the Two Faces Comedy Night improv tournament.

WASHINGTON – A couple of hours before comedy night at President Lincoln’s Cottage, I learned from Callie Hawkins, the cottage’s programming director, that Lincoln’s sense of humor was “pretty self-effacing, and his jokes were really bad. Like, really bad dad jokes. But people laughed.” Soon, three comedians would perform in the cottage’s drawing room, in front of a fireplace and facing about 60 people primed for a playful evening. The event was part of a series called Two Faces Comedy, an allusion to a comment the 16th president reportedly made after a critic charged him with hypocrisy. “If I had two faces,” he said, “would I be wearing this one?”

The Lincoln Cottage – which is not really a cottage, but a 34-room country home that the Lincoln family used as a summer and fall retreat in 1862, 1863 and 1864 – stands on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Northwest Washington. The idea for the series came after Chris White, a presidential history lover and marketing director of the DC Improv comedy club, met with the cottage’s staff for a podcast. The first comedy evening was held in 2016.

“At the Improv,” White says, “our overall belief is that laughter is a wonderful thing and it helps people in hard times. And Lincoln had more than his share in the time he was staying here.” The Lincolns lost their 11-year-old son, Willie, in early 1862 (4-year-old Edward had died in 1850), and the Civil War raged around them. Lincoln could see both the U.S. Capitol dome and a soldiers’ cemetery, Hawkins notes. “He was out here [at the Cottage] every evening making decisions and watching the effects of those decisions being buried in his front yard,” she told me. “And as a grieving father, none of that was lost on him.”

Lincoln, of course, would go to a comedy performance (Tom Taylor’s 1858 play “Our American Cousin”) on his last night. But the president’s death is not the focus here. “This was a place where Lincoln was alive,” Hawkins says. “He visited here the last time the day before his assassination. And so we interpret this as a place where Lincoln lived, where he spent time with his family. … That’s kind of what all of our programming is really about – activating the space as the Lincoln family did.”

That includes committing to freedom of expression. The staff doesn’t review comedians’ material before performances, says Lincoln’s Cottage CEO Michael Atwood Mason: “We know that Lincoln believed in asking people their opinions and hearing them out and asking follow-up questions. … We didn’t want to interrupt artists in their work. We want to hear what they have to say, and we treat our visitors like Lincoln treated his colleagues and friends.”

It was getting closer to showtime. Outside, the sky darkened. A deer tiptoed along the sidewalk. Program coordinator Joan Cummins bartended on the porch, selling water, hard seltzer and Samuel Adams beer. She told me that Lincoln didn’t drink alcohol but he did like hot beverages. One day at the Willard Hotel, a waiter served him a cup of something warm and brown. “If this is coffee, please bring me tea,” Lincoln said. “And if it’s tea, please bring me coffee.” (Research suggests that this wisecrack may have been recycled, making it a true dad joke.)

Also on the porch was Liz Copeland, who lives in the neighborhood. The night was a “unique opportunity to spend time on the grounds,” she said. Meanwhile in the drawing room, shadows sprawled across the ceiling and a baubled lamp on a marble-topped table shed light that looked gas-produced, as if it had been beamed directly from the 19th century. A long couch faced the performance area.

The setting presents a few challenges to performers. The crowd is close. At most comedy shows, the audience sits in the dark, but here, faces are visible, so comedians see how every crack lands.

Over the years, themes for shows have included immigration, grief, veterans and beards. Tonight’s was the fourth in a series about science. Lincoln was in office at the founding of the National Academy of Sciences, and he is the only president to hold a patent. (It was for “adjustable buoyant air chambers” to raise boats so they didn’t get stuck on shoals.)

Once the show got underway, the comedians – Kasha Patel (who is also deputy weather editor for The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang) and locals Robert Mac and Adam Ruben – won over the room. Patel joked that beyond theoretical physics, she wished for a theoretical physical education while growing up: “Yeah, I can tell you how many push-ups I could do, but never actually have to.”

Ruben recalled his time as a lab teaching assistant in biochemistry – when he graded reports that said things like, “I spilled every liquid you gave me, and my lab partner caught fire.” Mac joked about the quickest way to lower temperatures: “Convert to the metric system. When we convert to the metric system, temperatures will drop 15 degrees, overnight.”

Also from Mac: “Coming here today, my car actually turns into a time machine a little bit. It’s weird. Space and motion freeze, and time just continues to click through. But you know what they say: If you don’t like the traffic in D.C., just wait five minutes, and you’ll be in the same place.”

The night rushed along with plenty of hooting and clapping. There was some audience participation. As the evening ended and staff members started stacking chairs, it was easy to imagine that Lincoln the jokester would have been pleased.

Photo for The Washington Post by Shuran Huang
The audience reacts as Winston Hodges performs during Two Faces Comedy Night.