By Kris Kitto - 07/20/09 04:32 PM EDT
But, PA microphone in hand, Larsen took a liking to hamming it up in front of a crowd. Soon he was on the Washington stand-up comedy circuit, hit pay dirt with a riff on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and punched his ticket to a fruitful career in performing and television sitcom-writing in Los Angeles.
Now Larsen, 49, is back in Washington after having worked for the likes of Ellen DeGeneres, Whoopi Goldberg and Drew Carey, among others. This time around he has had an easier time with employment on Capitol Hill. Larsen returned to the East Coast as the communications director for Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), someone with whom he shares a nearly 30-year history and whom he calls a friend.
Larsen had no plans to come to Washington a couple of years ago. He had established himself as a reliably funny television writer, penning scripts for seven high-profile shows.
Then the writers’ strike of 2007 hit, and Larsen’s work began to disappear. At the same time, Speier, whom Larsen had come to know when the two were attempting to launch fledgling political careers as young adults in San Francisco, won the 2008 special election to replace Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) after he died. The new congresswoman called her old friend. Up until then, the two had only joked about working together in the past. But now she asked him, “What would you think of coming back to D.C.?”
The funny politician
Larsen says he grew up in a family full of jokesters and elaborate storytellers. He remembers at 5 years old his grandmother telling him an outlandish story, prompting him to ask her whether it was true.
“She said, ‘Storytellers don’t have to be true; they only have to be entertaining,’ ” he recalls. “That just stuck with me. That’s a great rule.”
As a young adult, though, Larsen was focused on politics. He majored in political science at San Francisco State University, spent a summer in Washington as an intern for Lantos and launched a campaign for San Bruno’s City Council at age 19.
That was when he met Speier. She had become something of a local celebrity after her near-death experience as a congressional staffer on an investigative trip to the South American cult enclave Jonestown. Her boss, Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.), was killed on that trip.
Speier endorsed Larsen for his City Council run.
After Larsen lost, he headed back to Washington in the early 1980s in pursuit of a job on Capitol Hill. Instead, he started going to open-mic nights and getting recognized for his humor.
“I lived here four, five years doing stand-up,” he says. “In my head, I was still looking for a Hill job, but at some point, that just stopped being as important.”
Larsen says stand-up comedy is “the scariest thing to do — it scares the hell out of me every time I do it.”
Still, he wasn’t too scared, during his fledgling career as a comic, to pick on the Bakkers, who at the time had a growing televangelism empire that relied largely on viewers pledging money through phone drives.
“I remember I did a joke and said, ‘I’ve read the whole Bible, and nowhere in there have I ever seen an 800 number,” Larsen says. “It was kind of just a throwaway line, but for whatever reason, it got a lot of good play.”
Larsen found his comedy niche — religion — and began to get more and bigger gigs.
Toward the end of the 1980s (around 1988 or 1989, he says), Larsen finally decided to make comedy his full-time career. He moved to Los Angeles with the hope of getting his own television show.
From performing to writing
Larsen scored a few slots on “The Tonight Show” during Jay Leno’s first year as host. But he grew tired of the downsides of stand-up comedy — working nights, constantly calling around for stage time.
Larsen was already writing at least a page of jokes each day for his act. So he decided to parlay that into a television-writing job.
His first was a sitcom called “Grace Under Fire” with comedian Brett Butler. He says the experience was baptism by fire.
“You know you hear stories around here about difficult [Congress] members to work for?” he says. “Oh, no, none of you guys could work for Brett Butler.”
He moved on to DeGeneres’s show, “Ellen,” but he also caught that operation during a tumultuous time. DeGeneres’s character came out as gay in the previous season, and Larsen and his colleagues received bomb threats and hate mail at their office.
Yet he knew what he was doing was groundbreaking.
“That was one of those jobs where every morning going to work, [you] felt like you were doing something,” says Larsen, who wrote the episode in which DeGeneres’s character went on her first date.
He continued on to other shows — Larsen likens Hollywood jobs to Capitol Hill in that people tend to move offices frequently. He wrote for Reba McEntire’s show, for “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” and for Goldberg’s sitcom, among others.
Back to Washington
All the while, Larsen and Speier stayed in touch. Speier had established herself as a California politician, and she would occasionally call Larsen if she needed help with a speech.
More than anything, it was the timing that brought them together professionally. As the 2007 writers’ strike dried up Larsen’s work, Speier was ramping up for the special congressional election. Larsen never gave up his interest in politics, and saw an opportunity to do something different for a while.
He has been with Speier since she came to D.C. last year, but Larsen hasn’t entirely given up his comedy routine. “He does keep all of us in the office in stitches,” Speier says.
But she also says he has a serious side that she saw when they first met.
“I was so impressed with his sincerity and his real commitment,” Speier says about getting to know Larsen when he ran for City Council.
Of Larsen’s transition to Washington, Speier says he’s a natural.
“He’s taken to it like a duck to water — but he quacks a lot,” she jokes.
Not surprisingly, Larsen is approaching his Washington job through the eyes of a writer, saying his new surroundings have inspired myriad film and television ideas. He sees his tenure in Washington this time around a bit differently from when he first came. Whereas he was once a political animal with a knack for making people laugh, he is now more of a television writer on a political hiatus.
“I love writing for television,” he says. “Not only is it really fun, [but] I learned ... that, ‘Oh, this is something I’m good at.’ ”