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Congressional Comics Take Risks for Laughs

File Photo
This year’s Washington Press Club Foundation dinner will feature stand-up comedy routines by Sens. Chris Coons (above) and several other lawmakers.

It’s no laughing matter when politicians try their hand at comedy. 

In fact, it can get downright serious. There are constituents and colleagues to consider — and potentially offend. There are zingers to write — or, of course, to hire someone else to write. 

Every year, Members of Congress come to the annual Washington Press Club Foundation dinner in the hopes of hitting Capitol Hill’s funny bone with their take on the lighter side of D.C. Some catapult to comedic stardom. And some crash and burn.

This year’s lineup features Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) and Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) as the entertainment at Wednesday’s dinner. Coons Communications Director Ian Koski said it’s all about walking a fine, but funny, line. 

“The idea of walking into a room full of colleagues and reporters — all of whom he takes very seriously — and doing 10 minutes of edgy stand-up has got to be intimidating, especially for a freshman,” Koski said in an e-mail. “You’ve got to reach the right tone — you have to be entertaining without being a clown. You have to be sharp without drawing blood. You have to be funny without becoming a joke.”

Justine Barron, a comedy writer and performer in Los Angeles who also works for Washington Writing Group’s joke service, said politicians trying their hand at comedy typically tread carefully — and that can lead to seriously unfunny performances.

“What are the boundaries? How far can you go, and how far do you want to go? To be funny, you have to be truthful, provocative and surprising,” she said. “Humor is by nature on the edge. It’s an incredibly tricky balance.”

When politicians inside the Beltway turn to comedy, Barron noted that it’s usually in an attempt to showcase their brains, not to push boundaries.

“Humor is a badge of intelligence in D.C., and it’s often used because when everything gets weighty and contentious, humor keeps people sane,” Barron said. “I think that the trick for anybody is that it has to be personal. When you deliver something to a room, what connects people to you and your humor is your vulnerability.”

For Coons’ upcoming stint as a comic, a team of staffers, colleagues and even Coons’ children has been working to develop material.

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