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Comedy described as ‘superpower’ that could help DC

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Forget shaking hands and stump speeches, political comedy experts say the tool that could actually help connect with voters is something that isn’t utilized enough in Washington: humor.

“Comedy is, in fact, a superpower,” Bipartisan Policy Center President Jason Grumet said Wednesday at “Punchlines and Politics” in downtown Washington.

“If you actually really want to meaningfully engage and resolve differences, having the ability to not just laugh at the other person but to laugh at oneself has been meaningful throughout our history,” Grumet told a packed audience, following an introduction by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Chief Operating Officer Kelly Veney Darnell and The Hill Editor in Chief Bob Cusack. 

The panel, hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center and The Hill, brought together four top comedy pros: author and former deputy secretary of Health and Human Services Tevi Troy, former Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), GOP presidential speechwriter Landon Parvin and former Capitol Steps member Bari Biern.

The event took place ahead of this weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, where presidents and comedians tell jokes to a room full of journalists, politicians and policy makers.

“Telling jokes has a purpose,” said Troy. “You don’t just tell it to make people like you, you tell it to accomplish something politically.”

Glickman credited humor with helping to turn the tide of public opinion when he was in Congress and was one of hundreds of lawmakers who had overdrafts at the House Bank, part of a 1992 banking scandal.

“I had 105 overdrafts — one for every county in the state of Kansas,” Glickman, who served from 1977 to 1995 before becoming Agriculture secretary, quipped.

“I said, ‘How am I ever going to get out of this thing?’ People think I’m an intelligent guy, can’t I learn to add or subtract? What’s wrong with me?”

Glickman had an idea: He’d poke some fun at himself with an original song when he appeared at the Gridiron Club dinner in Wichita that year — a ditty to the tune of “Big Spender” from the Broadway show, “Sweet Charity.”

“The song went: ‘Just send me back. Give me one more look. I’m not a crook.’ And I sang it to 4,000 people,” Glickman recalled.

“And afterwards, people came up to me and said, ‘You know what? I’ve bounced checks and it’s not such a big deal.’”

“The song helped because I was able to kind of make fun of myself in the process. It absolutely was transformational, turned the election,” Glickman exclaimed.

Troy said being funny is “a really smart way to handle politics.”

“Be willing to laugh at yourself and do it in a humble way,” he said.

Troy noted that jokes continue to live on and can be recycled to fit the political moment.

“There was a joke going around Washington a couple of years ago — and many of you probably heard — it was: Why do [Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas)] colleagues take such an instantaneous dislike to him? The answer is: It saves time.”

The joke, Troy pointed out, was actually penned by fellow panelist Parvin and was originally written decades ago about former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Various videos of politicians doing their best to yukk it up over the years were played throughout the event, from John F. Kennedy becoming the first presidential candidate to appear on late-night TV, to former President George W. Bush delivering a White House Correspondents’ Association dinner speech alongside an impressionist, to former President Obama chatting with “The Daily Show’s” Trevor Noah.  

Organizers also shared a rare audio clip of Nancy Reagan facing critics who accused her of having expensive taste and a “let them eat cake” vibe a la French queen Marie Antoinette. The then-first lady appeared at the 1982 Gridiron Club dinner and surprised guests by belting out her version of the Barbra Streisand song, “Second Hand Rose,” changing the title to “Second Hand Clothes” and sporting what a reporter at the time called a “raggedy patchwork costume.”

“There was huge applause and laughter just seeing her come out in these crazy clothes,” Parvin said. “It was playing against type. It’s sometimes the shock that makes it funny.”

“Humor has always been important in politics, especially as the parties have gotten more and more tense and anything but bipartisan,” Bern told the crowd.

“I just want to make a plea for more bipartisanship in humor — both at the presidential level and also at the comedian level,” Troy said.

“Right now, it’s really trouble city in the Congress. I’ve never seen it so bad,” Glickman, the author of “Laughing at Myself: My Education in Congress, on the Farm, and at the Movies,” said. “So one of the things we’ve got to work on is not only the jokes and what the president does, but recognize that it’s got to trickle down to other places in the American political system.”

“We’ve got to work on the Congress to realize that, God, they’ve got to lighten up,” Glickman added.

—Updated Friday at 12:19 p.m.

Tags Bipartisan Policy Center Dan Clickman Dan Glickman Humor Punchlines and Politics
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