King Tut Mania Was (In Part) A Nixon Political Ploy
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of King Tut's tomb. It was a huge deal at the time because it was a fabulous treasure uncovered in the desert, and the mystique stayed alive a while after that, thanks to the rumored curse. As for why King Tut came back again into the cultural consciousness in America a couple generations later, well, for that, we have to thank Richard M. Nixon.
America and Egypt broke all ties back in 1967 following the Six-Day War. Then Nixon came in, won reelection, and got around to restoring diplomacy. He wanted Egypt to make peace with Israel and stop being so nice to the Soviets, and he also wanted Americans to think about this alliance with Egypt in terms other than war and oil.
So, around the same time investigators were asking inconvenient questions about the Watergate Hotel, Nixon made a trip to Cairo. He signed an agreement with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, which included a bit of cultural exchange. Artifacts from Tutankhamun's tomb, including the famous mask, would make a tour of the United States, and soon, everything would be coming up Milhous.
The traveling exhibition went to six different US cities. Earlier, the goods had toured three Soviet cities—Leningrad (Saint Petersburg), Kiev (Kyiv), and Moscow (Moscow)—so getting double the cities proved America was twice as good as the USSR. In each of the six cities, around a million people saw the exhibit. Celebrities who showed up included Elizabeth Taylor, Andy Warhol, and the president himself. And by “the president,” we mean Jimmy Carter because by the time the tour was up and running, Nixon was out of office. As was Ford; Nixon would have been out of office by this time even if he hadn't resigned.
Often, admission was free, leading to Soviet-style long lines, in a betrayal of American capitalism. They did sell plenty of Tut merch, however, raising $9 million to renovate the Egyptian museum in Cairo. Some people weren't such fans of this commercialism, as shown by the following famous 100% serious bit of 1978 commentary from Steve Martin:
That's all the real info we have for you today, but before we let you go, let's just take a moment to appreciate—and we mean that non-sarcastically—such lyrics as the following:
(King Tut) How'd you get so funky?
(Funky Tut) Did you do the monkey?
See, when you write a novelty song like this on a set topic, you usually use a tested formula. You think of a word associated with the topic (say, "tomb"). Then you think of a rhyme for that word (say, "boom"). You set up the lyrics so that the topical word comes in the second line, something like the following (not actual lyrics from the song):
(King Tut) Economic boom
(King Tut) Looking at your tomb
This is quite easy to do, and with practice, you can improvise a whole song like this in real-time. The audiences laughs on hearing the final word because they recognize that it fits the theme, even if you haven't actually made a joke.
But while Martin's "King Tut" sometimes goes that route, it often avoids it, going with couplets where neither ending word relies on the Egypt theme, even as the set and costumes play up the Egypt theme to the max. And so, you're left laughing at the silliness of such lines as:
He coulda won a Grammy
Buried in his jammies
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Top image: White House