Magazine article Insight on the News

What's So Funny about Politics?

Magazine article Insight on the News

What's So Funny about Politics?

Article excerpt

Washington long has been comedy central, but political satire thrives only when audiences are informed and concerned enough to enjoy it. Modern satirists worry that today's audiences may be so overwhelmed by political scandal upon scandal that they are unwilling to acquire a taste for cutting-edge satire.

It's Friday evening at the Monocle, a Capitol Hill watering hole catering to the powerful, the once powerful and the wannabe powerful of the nation's capital. Comedian Mark Russell, surrounded by a CNN camera crew, is doing a two-minute shtick that will appear on the network the next day. Genially, he does a brief standup and presents an award to a Monocle regular, a former doorkeeper of the House of Representatives. Trouble ensues--a mechanical glitch requires another take. Russell seamlessly repeats himself and patrons of the crowded bar reprise their earlier laughter. At least, most do. At the bar, one man stares into his drink and mutters to his companion, "It was funnier the first time."

Political humor is no laughing mater. At least that seems to be the case lately in the grim-faced confines of Washington. First came the invasion of the barbarians from New York. At the Radio and TV Correspondents' Dinner, talk-radio host Don Imus' jabs at both the president and first lady as well as Washington journalists led to some sputtering in the press. Later, TV's Saturday Night Live veteran Al Franken attempted to repeat his 1994 triumph at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. This time, however, a couple of jokes about House Speaker Newt Gingrich's daughter led the speaker to chastise Franken after the banquet. More recently, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole plaintively asked late-night talk hosts to go with him on the campaign and he would show them that his grueling schedule was nothing to be taken lightly.

Despite this occasional grousing, political humor seems, on the surface at least, to be thriving. Bill Maher's television talk show Politically Incorrect will move from cable's Comedy Central to ABC next January. Franken's book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot, climbed to the top of the best-seller lists. P.J. O'Rourke, the right's favorite humorist, now appears regularly on CBS' 60 Minutes, exchanging barbs with liberal Texas journalist Molly Ivans. And at the more sedate end of the spectrum the unthreatening Russell's piano-and-patter routine probably still has the largest national audience for political satire thanks to PBS broadcasts during the last two decades--not to mention his weekly appearances on CNN from the Monocle.

Russell got his start playing piano at the Carroll Arms, a now-defunct hotel that was located a parking lot away from the current site of the Monocle. The aging hotel was a favorite spot of amorous lawmakers, remembers the comedian. "Essentially, I was a piano player in a whorehouse, but I never stayed on the first floor." His duties at the Carroll Arms included, during one round of inaugural festivities, to chill cheap champagne by rolling it in the snow. He has come a long way. As might be expected, Russell's Washington humor is more affectionate than barbed, well-suited to the clubby confines of the Monocle.

Russell's humor is the sort that occurs in a company town. Just as Pittsburgh once had jokes about steelworkers and Los Angeles still comes up with gags about freeways and Hollywood casting couches, D.C. likes to laugh at itself...very gently. Rougher stuff usually is in short supply in Washington. Maher, a Cornell-educated stand-up comic, was tapped to host his quirky political panel discussion out of New York in 1993. He combined sardonic riffs on current affairs (on the Brady gun-control bill, he commented, "Should we require a seven-day waiting period to have a child and, if so, would it be called the Brady Bunch bill?") with unique guest lists (one memorable group included G. Gordon Liddy and gay playwright Harvey Fierstein). …

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