By Betsy Rothstein - 05/04/05 12:00 AM EDT
Not all lawmakers are as funny as their aides lead them to believe.
At times, the laughter emanating from congressional offices is deafening. No matter that it might be fake, the lawmaker gets fooled again and again into believing that everything that comes out of his mouth is funny.
Some are genuinely funny — Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) with his biting sarcasm, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Texas) with her Southern standup, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) with his dry-plains wit and Brian Baird (D-Wash.) with his uncanny impersonations of colleagues such as John Lewis (D-Ga.), Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Bill Thomas (R-Calif.). In his heyday as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) had his moments, such as when he’d quiet down the “gentle lady” from Texas, by whom he meant the unquiet Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas).
And who can forget former Rep. Jim Traficant (D-Ohio) in his early-’80s leisure suits and outlandish toupee? Before being kicked out of Congress in 2001, he’d stride through the Speaker’s Lobby putting colleagues in headlocks or grabbing the occasional derriere.
After Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband’s penis, Traficant received calls from all over America begging for a floor speech. It came in the form of a bawdy rhyme:
“There once was a woman from Manassas, who got tired of all the hassles. She’s been raped by her spouse, went to the kitchen to get a knife, fully prepared to take her husband’s life. In realizing that such a crime would be much too heinous, she decided instead to cut off his painless. Mr. Speaker, I don’t know if this man plays the piano, but here on out he’ll sing like a soprano.”
While most lawmakers say that humor plays a vital role in their careers, many agree that a strange phenomenon occurs when a man gets elected to Congress. Not only does he suddenly become more attractive — no matter his receding hairline, comb over or paunch — but his sense of humor vastly improves.
“I certainly think your jokes get a lot funnier when you get elected,” said Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.). He wasn’t particularly funny on a recent day in the Speaker’s Lobby as he described a floor visit with his 3-year-old daughter, Selia, who apparently didn’t care who House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was. Selia’s main memory was of the ice cream she got in the Cloak Room.
“You have to have the humility to remember it’s not you, it’s the office.”
Jindal, who says he hopes his friendly aides are still honest with him, says it’s “very healthy” for lawmakers to make sure they keep friends from the days before they were elected. “A lot of what we do seems irrational and bureaucratic,” he says. “It’s healthy to have friends who will poke fun at it.”
Several lawmakers employ self-deprecating humor. Rep. Rick Keller (R-Fla.) credits it for his election to Congress. It certainly wasn’t his fundraising prowess. “I was an unknown guy facing an undefeated mayor,” he says. “I was behind in the polls, 50 grand in debt. I squeaked out a win.”
Like a standup comic, Keller mixes new and old material into his town hall meetings, floor speeches and TV appearances. He uses jokes that guarantee him laughter. Once in a while, he also flops. “I have a good sense of when my jokes are funny,” he says. “If I went with straight raw material all the time, it would be humiliating.”
Keller, a lawyer by trade, got his start in politics in 1993 as Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s unofficial joke writer. He met Bush after watching him give a dry stump speech. He handed the would-be governor a business card with a joke on the back. It read: “One of my opponents has accused me of running on my father’s coattails. To show that I’m running on my own merits, I’ve decided to change my last name. It’s either going to be Reagan or Eisenhower.” Bush later used the joke, and Keller became a volunteer on the campaign.
In 1994, Bush lost his governor’s race, but People magazine declared him the funny candidate.
Last May, Keller was in a Judiciary Committee hearing on software that filters profanity and sexual content out of movies on DVD. Bill Aho, CEO of ClearPlay Inc., was invited to testify. At one point, Keller asked him how to pronounce his surname. He felt compelled to ask after hearing ranking member Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) repeatedly refer to the witness as “A ho.” Keller joked, “I wasn’t sure if [Conyers] was getting it right because that’s how he usually refers to me.”
Humor can be dicey. “It’s a little scary around here being funny,” says Baird, “because you can mean something lightheartedly but have it used against you forever.”
Baird looks down and crinkles his brows and mouth into a fierce squinch and belts out a convincing Rep. John Lewis: “We never give up!” he thunders. “We never give in!”
The lawmaker, who does a mean President Bush, has been asked to do standup on several occasions. “It scares the willies out of staff when you’re getting ready to do one of these things,” he says. “It’s a risk, especially when you start winging it. That one laugh could be pretty expensive.”
Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) has a sure-thing story he has told at least 50 times. He told it to members of the Congressional Black Caucus the day he was elected chairman of the caucus.
Here’s how it goes:
“One day, my father overheard me being boastful about something. He said to me, son, I want to tell you a story. There was a minister who had great difficulty holding on to a pastor. Within days, he would be gone. This went on for years and years and years. This pastor showed up, after three months he was still there. After six months, the pastor was still there. A year, still there. And he began to feel very proud of himself.
“The pastor went to a parishioner and said, ‘Now sister, you gotta tell me why is it that I’ve been successful when all others before me have failed. Tell me what has been the secret to my success. She said, ‘Well, it’s like this. We really don’t want a preacher, and you are the closest thing to nothing we ever had.’”
Clyburn says it always gets a laugh.
Sen. Roberts has been named funniest lawmaker by Washingtonian magazine three years in a row. Occasionally, he’ll phone a member of his staff, particularly new aides, and pose as an angry constituent.
He will give the staffer a “very hard time that the staffer will never forget,” says Sarah Ross Little, Roberts’s communications director. Then Roberts fesses up with a one-liner: “Oh, that’s great. I was just trying to see what we were saying.”