Legend has it that in his first public performance following the JFK assassination, Lenny Bruce defused a potentially volatile backlash without avoiding a subject he was eagerly expected to comment upon. Bruce walked onstage, shook his head sadly, and said only two words: "Vaughn Meader." The audience laughed uproariously, for Bruce had broken the tension by pointing out a truth that mattered far less in the grand scheme of things, but had a certain human poignancy nonetheless: the career of comedian Meader, whose uncanny JFK impression had made him a star, was over. Much of Meader's reputation rested on The First Family, an album of comedy sketches that good-naturedly lampooned the Kennedys' family life and the Cold War hostilities that threatened to boil over during his term. The First Family was a substantial hit, going gold and topping the charts for three months; moreover, it won the 1962 Grammy Award for Album of the Year. The First Family, Vol. 2 was hastily assembled the following year to capitalize on the success of its predecessor, but Kennedy's death only a few months after its release put an end to the grieving nation's demand for Meader's talents.
This 1999 Collectables two-fer reissues both First Family albums on one CD. The first volume is a classic among comedy recordings, and for a project so potentially indebted to its time period, it's surprising how well the material holds up. Producers Earle Doud and Bob Booker co-wrote the record with George Foster, and their well-crafted gags are intelligent and gently satirical, poking good-natured fun without turning the record into a fawning tribute. Naomi Brossart does an excellent job as Jackie, and there are great bits involving Caroline, John-John, Castro, and Khrushchev, but Meader's performance is amazing, and his accent absolutely dead-on; Rose Kennedy once said that she could close her eyes while listening to the record and think it was her son. Vol. 2 isn't quite as good -- the script was somewhat rushed, and simply not as sharp as The First Family, although it still had moments. With the work of Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce paving the way for edgier satire, and with the Vietnam War undermining public faith in the government, The First Family's style of political comedy disappeared in a few short years (witness the much less forgiving Nixon impressions of David Frye just a few years later). But even though it came from a more innocent era, its impeccable writing and performances don't really feel dated -- just flat-out funny.