Politics

03.28.14

Bill Maher for Congress?

It’s not so far-fetched. Political comedians are already grassroots political candidates.

Bill Maher wants your vote for Congress this November. No, Maher’s name won’t be on the ballot, at least not yet.

Maher recently announced his “Flip a District” contest where he will pick one “terrible, entrenched” member of Congress and “see if we can’t send him scuttling under the refrigerator on Election Night.” (Translation: Beat him)  The contest is now heating up after Maher announced on his HBO show last Friday the first two House members under consideration to be chosen as the big “winner.”

To me, this contest is part of Maher’s evolution from simply a political comedian to possibly a candidate for elected office. Before you dismiss this theory, hear me out.

For years, Maher has been simply a political comedian. But that changed in 2012, when Maher donated $1 million to a super PAC supporting President Obama’s reelection efforts.  Now with “Flip a District,” Maher has taken the next step as he enters “the exciting world of outright meddling with the political process.” 

I’m not saying that Bill Maher is now on the verge of giving up his day job to pursue elected office, but there’s a chance we could see that one day. And here’s the thing: Maher could win. (That screaming sound you heard was from people on the right.)

Just a few years ago, a pot-smoking atheist like Maher would've had little chance of being elected dog catcher let along member of Congress. But those days are gone. We already saw an atheist in Congress with California’s Pete Stark,  and recently elected Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who was sworn into Congress in January without a Bible, officially listed her religious beliefs as “none.”

Regarding marijuana, not only do a majority of Americans now support legalizing it,  recently Rep. Jared Polis from Colorado estimated that about 5 percent of the members of Congress smoke weed.  And to be honest, to deal with people like Ted Cruz, you probably need to smoke a lot of pot.

Maher running for office is also consistent with what attracts people to become political comedians. We discuss political issues in our acts because we are truly concerned with them and hope our comedy can sway some people.

That’s the secret about political comedians: Most are delusional, including myself. We sincerely believe that by telling jokes about political issues, we are actually having an impact on the issues.

So running for office is just a natural extension of our comedy. On some level, political comedians are already grassroots political candidates. We are traveling the country speaking to people about issues that matter to us. 

Although as New York-based political comic Scott Blakeman noted, we have a greater challenge then politicians or pundits: “They just have to express their views on topics; we have to do that plus be funny.”   Blakeman is correct because few would pay a cover and two-drink minimum to hear a comedian give an unfunny speech.

We sincerely believe that by telling jokes about political issues, we are actually having an impact on the issues.

Maher wouldn’t be the first political comedian to turn fame into electoral success: Al Franken navigated the transformation from Saturday Night Live to the U.S. Senate. And many other political comedians I know, including myself, have at least contemplated the idea of seeking elected office.

Blakeman, who has made over 30 national TV appearances, considered running for Brooklyn borough president in 2013. Jimmy Tingle, a favorite of political comedy fans, recently graduated from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and has considered seeking office. However, Tingle did note that being a comedian might be a bit easier because you don’t have to govern based on your jokes nor raise millions of dollars to perform comedy.

Joey Novick, a longtime comedian, was recently elected to the town council in Flemington, N.J. The only Democrat on the six-member council, Novick says his experience with hecklers has come in handy in local politics.

However, Lizz Winstead, the comedian and activist who is co-creator of The Daily Show, rejected any thoughts of seeking office. Winstead explained that, “combating fear and lies with humor and truth is the best job in the world.” Plus, as a comedian, “sometimes you gotta swear,” she noted. “A politician can’t do that.”

And comedian/TV host John Fugelsang echoed Winstead’s sentiments: “I'd run for office but I’d rather confine my corruption and sloth to the private sector.” Fugelsang quipped: “Comics are bitter misogynist self-loathing drunks, and Congress already has already hit their quota of those.”

So is the next step for Maher or other political comics to seek office? For some, I can say it’s highly likely.  The real question, though, is what is the most effective way of effecting change in today’s America: being a political comedian with a media presence or being a member of the most dysfunctional political body in the country? In the case of Bill Maher, becoming a member of Congress at this time would likely be a step down.