Sometimes DC and its power players are unintentionally hilarious. This past Wednesday evening, however, at the 16th Annual Funniest Celebrity in Washington Contest, politicos, media folk and other local “celebs” took to the stage to be purposefully funny. Some jokes triumphed, filling Connecticut Avenue’s cozy, underground Improv lounge with delighted laughter. Other jokes (and/or their delivery) flat-out bombed, instead filling the room with uncomfortable silences and forcing squirming spectators to squeeze their seatmate’s arm while slinking deeper into the darkness.
But alas, not everyone’s a born comedian, and I give those brave souls credit for stepping out into the Improv spotlight in this notoriously straight-laced town. In any case, the gathering under one roof of such an odd cast of characters—from “Joe the Plumber” to Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist—provided superb if surreal people watching. Only in DC. And despite recent accusations to the contrary, event organizers claim proceeds (individual ticket sales started at $200) go to a good cause (we hope so anyway, we really do). This year’s fundraiser is said to benefit the charity StandUp For Kids, and show producer Richard Siegel, likely none-too-pleased with recent press, did remind us umpteen times that this event was “for the kids.” Our fingers are crossed.
Recurring comedic material came as no surprise; popular topics included Sarah Palin (her new memoir in particular), Obama’s Chicago Olympic bid in Copenhagen, the health care debate, Mark Sanford and his Argentinean lover, Kanye West’s recent VMA stunt and, of course, the recession. Contestants, many of whom read straight from note cards, were judged by a panel, including one dressed in a GEICO gecko costume (I told you it was a bizarre scene).
Comedian and Onion editor Baratunde Thurston proved a smooth, capable master of ceremonies (a relief), encouraging the audience to drink from the get-go (“It makes people funnier”), discussing his school days at Sidwell Friends (“I arrived with a slight case of Ebonics”) and testing limits with “barometer jokes” on slavery (when discussing the Facebook application of being “owned,” Thurston joked, “I am genetically predisposed to dislike this application”). Sam Donaldson threw out the first joke (which he admitted was a sexist jab), delivered in a well-rehearsed if theatrical manner, hands flailing, and scurried off-stage as quickly as possible. One of the early contestants, Washington (state) Congressman Rick Larsen launched into his well-timed session by predicting that most of us were asking, “Who the frick are you?”
Some jokes crossed the line just enough, others felt a bit less appropriate. U.S. News and World Report‘s Anna Mulrine spoke of her experience with embedded journalism in Afghanistan, attempting to mix humor with heavy topics like war and death. The audience seemed confused. A few tender moments were woven into the humor. President of the Motion Picture Association of America Dan Glickman delivered jokes about his mother, later revealing she has since passed away. When discussing his appointment by Clinton as Secretary of Agriculture, Glickman revealed his mom’s response: “Secretary! That’s not even a promotion!”
Congresswoman Jackie Speier sported a dark suit and sparkly jewelry as she worked the crowd with ease, surmising what it would be like if women ran Wall Street. Things would be different, she claimed, since women always know when men are lying and because “no performance bonuses would be delivered” unless the act was actually performed. Joe Wurzelbacher aka “Joe the Plumber” comfortably waltzed on-stage in an untucked flannel shirt and jeans, declaring he was sick of living a lie, that he was in fact Karl Rove’s half-brother and that he missed “his long golden locks.” Yes, I actually witnessed “Joe the Plumber” utter the words: “I need a mani and a pedi something fierce.”
In the crassest act of the evening, local restaurateur Chef Geoff (later deemed “the drunk chef” by Thurston) took to the stage in his white jacket and popped open a bottle of bubbly. His act traced his culinary career, offered advice to the drunk guy sitting at the end of the bar (“No, she’s not getting better-looking. You are just totally sh*t-faced.”) and ended by declaring the difference between a wife and a job: “After two years, your job still sucks.”
After several hours (that sometimes felt like even longer), the judges tallied their votes (the mute gecko presumably delivering a handwritten response). When all was said and done, Glickman received an Honorable Mention (perhaps his appeal to judges worked: “My mom would vote for me if she were here”), and Congressman Larsen took home third place. Runner-up went to return contestant Grover Norquist, who had entered the stage holding a glass of “neat” Bourbon and shared sweet and funny tales of married life and of being the father of two young daughters.
But THE funniest “celeb” of all? The honor went to Austan Goolsbee, Economic Adviser for the White House, whose routine gained momentum as it unfolded, borrowing from SNL’s Kevin Nealon’s Mr. Subliminal routine. Goolsbee flawlessly uttered lines under his breath like when he spoke about guest performer Senator Ben Nelson (uttering phrases like “sneak attack” and “stabbing in the back“) and ending his skit with this line: “I’m just a guy from Chicago (future Fed Chair).” As he left the stage, Goolsbee joked that after this comedic routine, he may now be joining the country’s ranks of unemployed. If it’s any consolation to him, though, Goolsbee might have just found himself a fallback career.