The president runs a turkey-pardon extortion scheme, in a David Mamet play named for what month?

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Published November 23, 2023

Duh! is a weekly column that gives circuitous answers to obvious questions. If you dig it, you can find 100 more of these essays in the Geeks Who Drink book, Duh!.

You read that right: In Mamet’s 2007 play November, Nathan Lane’s inept, incumbent President Charles Smith is in dire straits: Days away from a landslide re-election loss, and so thoroughly abandoned by his national party that he’s not even sure he can raise the funds for a presidential library afterward (it’s not automatic, he learns).

When he finds out that the turkey farmers’ association only gives him a lousy $50,000 for his annual pardons, Smith hatches a scheme to pardon all the nation’s turkeys – in a televised speech, he’ll reveal “new information” suggesting the pilgrims ate pork instead – unless, of course, the turkey people come correct with millions in cash. No spoilers, but his curtain line is “Jesus, I love this country.”

The show ran at the Ethel Barrymore Theater for 205 performances and 33 previews, and that’s all we have in the way of a book report. The real reason for this essay is to celebrate the career of Laurie Metcalf, who garnered the production’s only Tony nomination (the first of six for her) playing presidential speechwriter Clarice Bernstein.1 In a world that’s always measuring EGOT progress, Metcalf was nominated for 75 percent of that grand slam in 2018 alone:

  • Nominated for a Supporting Actress Emmy as Aunt Jackie in the (brief) revival of Roseanne.
  • Nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar as Saoirse Ronan’s (complicated) mom in Lady Bird.
  • Won the Featured Play Actress Tony as (cynical) woman B in the revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women.

The Tony was her second in a row; she picked up Best Leading Actress in 2017 for A Doll’s House, Part 2.2 And this was all at age 53, a time when Hollywood often tells actresses that they’re all washed up.

But Metcalf’s lasting success should come as no surprise. Born in Southern Illinois in 1955, Metcalf graduated from the Illinois State theater department the same year as John Malkovich, and in 1974, alongside Malkovich and Gary Sinise, became an original member of Chicago’s soon-famous Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Even her first movie role came in a film directed by future Honorary Oscar-winner Robert Altman.

But of course, it was in 1988 that she landed the role she’s best known for outside of Broadway: Jackie Harris on Roseanne and The Conners. “The writers started writing to each one of our strengths,” she told the Associated Press in 2021, “so I’m assuming that one of my strengths is to be this victimized loser … she still meddles in the family’s business, even though her own life is collapsing around her.” Perhaps the show’s setting in rural Illinois gave her that extra bit of authenticity. 

Whatever the reason, a strength it most certainly was: Not only did the show stay in Nielsen’s top 4 for seven of its original nine seasons, but Metcalf won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actress three years in a row, from 1990-92.3

(Don’t worry, Nathan Lane has done okay too).

  1. A lesbian who has just returned from adopting a baby in China, Bernstein does her own ransom act – withholding a final, legacy-defining speech until the president agrees to perform a (then-illegal) wedding ceremony for her and her partner.
  2. Yes, it’s a sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 dour masterwork, A Doll’s House, written by Lucas Hnath. Suffice to say, its dialogue is not very Roseanne-like.
  3. Elsewhere in Illinois, Michael Jordan didn’t complete his three-peat until a year later, in 1993. Roseanne would leave the airwaves (the first time) before Jordan finished his second in ‘98.