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Congressional Comics Take Risks for Laughs

It’s no laughing matter when politicians try their hand at comedy. 

In fact, it can get downright serious. There are constituents and colleagues to consider — and potentially offend. There are zingers to write — or, of course, to hire someone else to write. 

Every year, Members of Congress come to the annual Washington Press Club Foundation dinner in the hopes of hitting Capitol Hill’s funny bone with their take on the lighter side of D.C. Some catapult to comedic stardom. And some crash and burn.

This year’s lineup features Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) and Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) as the entertainment at Wednesday’s dinner. Coons Communications Director Ian Koski said it’s all about walking a fine, but funny, line. 

“The idea of walking into a room full of colleagues and reporters — all of whom he takes very seriously — and doing 10 minutes of edgy stand-up has got to be intimidating, especially for a freshman,” Koski said in an e-mail. “You’ve got to reach the right tone — you have to be entertaining without being a clown. You have to be sharp without drawing blood. You have to be funny without becoming a joke.”

Justine Barron, a comedy writer and performer in Los Angeles who also works for Washington Writing Group’s joke service, said politicians trying their hand at comedy typically tread carefully — and that can lead to seriously unfunny performances.

“What are the boundaries? How far can you go, and how far do you want to go? To be funny, you have to be truthful, provocative and surprising,” she said. “Humor is by nature on the edge. It’s an incredibly tricky balance.”

When politicians inside the Beltway turn to comedy, Barron noted that it’s usually in an attempt to showcase their brains, not to push boundaries.

“Humor is a badge of intelligence in D.C., and it’s often used because when everything gets weighty and contentious, humor keeps people sane,” Barron said. “I think that the trick for anybody is that it has to be personal. When you deliver something to a room, what connects people to you and your humor is your vulnerability.”

For Coons’ upcoming stint as a comic, a team of staffers, colleagues and even Coons’ children has been working to develop material.

“As soon as we accepted the invitation back in December we started jotting down ideas, pulling together what could generously be described as a ‘crack’ team of the funniest people in the office and perpetually adding lines of humor to a Google doc,” Koski said. “Sen. Coons — who is privately a pretty funny guy — would occasionally say something funny while walking back from a meeting or a vote and we’d make sure to write it down.”

The team is also getting outside help from a friend of a staffer, and Coons has sought advice from other Senators. Unsurprisingly in a town like D.C., funny business never came first. “The Senator made it very clear up front that legislative and constituent work always, always, always had to come first,” Koski noted.

WPCF Executive Director Suzanne Pierron said the dinner offers politicians a chance to showcase their natural skills behind the mic.

“Members of Congress are very smart, very talented people. They have personalities that reach out to others,” she said. “It’s natural for someone who can communicate so well to have a great sense of humor and have a room respond to them.”

And some Members have turned in legendary performances at the event, with former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) famous for bringing down the house in recent years.

“We made sure Senator Coons watched Senator McCaskill’s performance last year and Senator Klobuchar’s performance the year before so he could see what he was getting into, but those videos had the added effect of setting the bar pretty high — really high,” Koski said. “They were hysterical — like ‘Daily Show’ hysterical. That level of humor requires a degree of edginess that assumes a risk significantly amplified by this particular audience.”

And when elected officials perform stand-up, the pressure to crack a good joke isn’t the only risk they’re taking. 

“It’s so damn tricky,” Barron said. “It’s really hard, period, to be funny in a universal way. The hardest part of it is if on top of it all your job and re-election are at stake. It’s just not easy.”

It may not be easy, but Elaina Newport, co-founder of song parody troupe Capitol Steps, said Hill comedians’ best bet to hit the Beltway funny bone is mixing the personal and the political.

“A lot of politicians are trying to show they have a sense of humor because it makes them look human,” she said. “Would you trust someone who doesn’t know how to laugh at themselves?”

The key, Newport said, is to be funny — but not become the joke. “No politician is going to solve all of the problems, so you might as well vote for the funniest one so you have something to laugh about,” she said.  

The foundation’s 67th Congressional dinner will be Wednesday at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. David Meyers and Dena Bunis, both CQ Roll Call employees, co-chair the dinner committee for the Press Foundation.

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