“You guys gonna vote?” As a conversation-starter for a stand-up comic trying to engage the crowd in a New York City comedy club, it’s hardly as promising as old-standbys like “Anybody here from out of town?” or “Is that your girlfriend?” But it’s a signal that the comic is ready to pivot from the usual complaints about his sex life and put-downs of New Jersey, and show that he’s actually reading the papers. Get ready for the political jokes.
David Letterman has been pummeling Mitt Romney mercilessly, Jon Stewart’s outrage level rises with every passing campaign week, and Saturday Night Live’s weekly Obama impersonation gets parsed as closely as Obama’s own debate performances. But what about the foot-soldiers of comedy, the stand-ups who work the comedy-club circuit? What’s their take on the 2012 Presidential race — if they have one? I paid a visit to two of New York City’s most popular stand-up showcases last weekend to get a sampling.
The first thing to notice: political comedy has seen better days. Ever since George W. Bush left office and Sarah Palin said goodbye to politics, stand-up comics have been scrambling. President Obama has never been a very good target: too cool, too gaffe-resistant — and, frankly, too politically in-sync with the mostly young, urban, ethnic comedians who frequent the New York clubs. The Republican primary season, with its rogue’s gallery of imploding candidates, offered rich possibilities, but even that now seems like old news — though you can still hear the occasional leftover joke about Rick Perry or Herman Cain or Rick Santorum. (“He reads the Bible every day. He’s 54 years old. Finish the book!”)
Still, the Presidential race has provided one juicy target — the uptight rich guy who heads the Republican ticket. Greg Rogell, a whiny New Yorker with a deceptively sharp scalpel (that’s his Santorum joke), says he doesn’t trust Mitt Romney’s smile: “It looks like he’s hiding a dead hooker in the trunk of his car.” Sherrod Small, who followed Rogell onstage at the Comedy Cellar on a recent evening, says Romney has “the body-language of C3PO” and “rich man’s mouth.” Barry Weintraub, doing a few sharp minutes at the Gotham Comedy Club on Saturday night, actually slams the GOP candidate on issues: “Romney says the government doesn’t create jobs — but make me head of the government and I’ll create jobs.”
Jokes about Obama, such as they exist, are friendlier, often poking fun at the reaction to him, not the President himself. “I never thought I would live to see a black President,” Mike Yard, a round-faced African-American comic, says with something dangerously close to sincerity. “There’s a brother in the White House. That’s big. And he’s a black dude. He’s got swagger. I wanna talk ‘hood to him.” And Obama is always a good vehicle for a backhanded swipe at his predecessor in the White House. “He promised change,” says Weintraub. “In his very first press conference he spoke in complete sentences, and I thought, change has come to America.”
Stand-up comics are better barometers of middle America, I would argue, than any newspaper columnist or rich late-night TV host. Most of them are struggling working-class guys (and gals — though the two women I saw steered clear of politics), proud members of Romney’s 47%. “I don’t have health insurance,” says Yard. “I have hope. I hope I don’t get sick.” Weintraub does a neat takedown of the Republican right wing’s case against the President. “Billionaires hate Barack Obama,” he says. “They say he’s a socialist. Apparently not a very good socialist. Because they’re still billionaires.”
Paul Mecurio, a pugnacious, soap-opera-handsome former lawyer who headlined at Gotham over the weekend, is one comedian who at least tries to give Romney a break. “He made a lot of money — good for him! I want him to be rich and successful. I want him to be better than us.” Mecurio also gets credit for risking the attention span of his rowdy, mostly twentysomething audience with a deft recap of all four Presidential debates.
The first encounter between Romney and Obama, he says, was all about moderator Jim Lehrer: “I haven’t seen a PBS personality do that bad since Mr. Rogers’ sex tape.” The Vice Presidential debate: “Clash of the Whiteans.” The town-hall free-for-all between Obama and Romney: “I thought I was watching an episode of Maury.” As for the fourth debate, on foreign policy: “It looked like Obama got intelligence reports, and Romney was reading from Wikipedia.”
Mecurio used to write for The Daily Show, so he knows this territory. But in front of a raucous Saturday-night crowd in a New York comedy club, that’s daring material.