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Members Make ’Em Laugh

The Washington Press Club Foundation’s Annual Congressional Dinner Provides A Chance For Lawmakers to Be Funny on Purpose

l too often, when politicians are being funny, they’re not trying to be.

So we should treasure those moments when they take being funny very seriously and succeed.

With any luck, the Washington Press Club Foundation’s Annual Congressional Dinner tonight will be one of those times.

The headliners: 

• Rep. Linda Sánchez, a California Democrat whose stand-up routine won her the title of “Funniest Celebrity in Washington” in 2006 (in a contest for charity that benefited, among others, Susan G. Komen for the Cure — write your own joke here).

• Rep. Billy Long, a freshman Missouri Republican who is a professional auctioneer. He might be funny, but he might talk too fast to tell.

• Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat who once ran the family jewelry business and worked at a lobster shack. Gotta be some material in there.

A year ago, it was Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) who was preparing for his big debut. The freshman lawmaker seized his opportunity to prove that he was more than the man who could best a self-declared non-witch. 

“I think everyone expected me to stand up and make fun of my general election opponent,” Coons said, “and I really didn’t want to do that.”

So Coons began preparing for the event when he was invited to speak in December 2010, only a month after his election victory, Communications Director Ian Koski said. 

The Senator first watched video clips from the previous year’s event, including performances by Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.). “That was when we said, ‘OK, we have to take this seriously,’” Koski said.

When it came to searching for material, Coons looked to his colleagues, his staff and his family, especially his children. 

“I find if I just listen to them, they say stuff that’s funny,” he said. 

Once they had the raw material, Coons and his staff wrote, edited and rehearsed the drafts that would eventually become his routine. Practice, Coons said, was crucial. 

“I’ve been comfortable telling jokes and with public speaking for much of my adult life,” said Coons, who participated in debate club in college. 

But the scale of this event made it different.

“Either there were a thousand people there, or it seemed like there were,” he said.

Coons is eager to see how this year’s speakers will fare. 

“It will be very interesting to see how folks handle the current crop of presidential candidates [and] the environment in the Capitol,” he said.

Shaheen is thinking along the same lines. 

“She’s watching clips from the Republican presidential debates,” said Shaheen’s communications director, Jonathan Lipman. “We figured there’d be plenty of funny stuff in there.”

Long is taking a more laid-back approach. 

“I think I’ll just try to be me,” said Long, who was planing on writing down bullet points rather than writing out a full speech. “I might completely change it at the last minute.”

But he has done some research, including watching clips from last year’s dinner. “Chris Coons was awfully good last year,” he said.

No matter what happens tonight, WPC Foundation President Ellen Shearer, director of Medill News Service, is “just hoping that everybody has a great time. I think we’ve got a terrific lineup.”

Proceeds from the event go to the foundation’s internship program, which offers paid internships in political journalism, and its Women in Journalism project, an oral history program.

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