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“As soon as we accepted the invitation back in December we started jotting down ideas, pulling together what could generously be described as a ‘crack’ team of the funniest people in the office and perpetually adding lines of humor to a Google doc,” Koski said. “Sen. Coons — who is privately a pretty funny guy — would occasionally say something funny while walking back from a meeting or a vote and we’d make sure to write it down.”
The team is also getting outside help from a friend of a staffer, and Coons has sought advice from other Senators. Unsurprisingly in a town like D.C., funny business never came first. “The Senator made it very clear up front that legislative and constituent work always, always, always had to come first,” Koski noted.
WPCF Executive Director Suzanne Pierron said the dinner offers politicians a chance to showcase their natural skills behind the mic.
“Members of Congress are very smart, very talented people. They have personalities that reach out to others,” she said. “It’s natural for someone who can communicate so well to have a great sense of humor and have a room respond to them.”
And some Members have turned in legendary performances at the event, with former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) famous for bringing down the house in recent years.
“We made sure Senator Coons watched Senator McCaskill’s performance last year and Senator Klobuchar’s performance the year before so he could see what he was getting into, but those videos had the added effect of setting the bar pretty high — really high,” Koski said. “They were hysterical — like ‘Daily Show’ hysterical. That level of humor requires a degree of edginess that assumes a risk significantly amplified by this particular audience.”
And when elected officials perform stand-up, the pressure to crack a good joke isn’t the only risk they’re taking.
“It’s so damn tricky,” Barron said. “It’s really hard, period, to be funny in a universal way. The hardest part of it is if on top of it all your job and re-election are at stake. It’s just not easy.”
It may not be easy, but Elaina Newport, co-founder of song parody troupe Capitol Steps, said Hill comedians’ best bet to hit the Beltway funny bone is mixing the personal and the political.
“A lot of politicians are trying to show they have a sense of humor because it makes them look human,” she said. “Would you trust someone who doesn’t know how to laugh at themselves?”
The key, Newport said, is to be funny — but not become the joke. “No politician is going to solve all of the problems, so you might as well vote for the funniest one so you have something to laugh about,” she said.
The foundation’s 67th Congressional dinner will be Wednesday at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. David Meyers and Dena Bunis, both CQ Roll Call employees, co-chair the dinner committee for the Press Foundation.