It’s not often that a comedian wants to be taken seriously, but well-known political comic Jimmy Tingle would like you to do just that. Indeed, at last month’s Massachusetts Democratic convention, one of the opening lines of his speech was that his campaign for lieutenant governor is “100 percent serious.”
Tingle, who sports a strong working-class Boston accent, knows that in order to make history and become the first comedian ever to win statewide office in Massachusetts, he needs to be seen as much more than as a guy who can simply make a crowd roar with laughter.
Tingle, though, has already made a bit of history—he was the first candidate to be introduced at the Massachusetts Democratic convention by Johnny Carson. Yes, that Johnny Carson, but it was a voice-over from decades ago, when Tingle was a guest on The Tonight Show when Carson was host.
That bit of levity was there for a bigger reason. As Tingle explained, in 1987 he was struggling with alcohol addiction. He called around to different facilities but no one would help him until he connected with one in Cambridge, where a voice told him, “You called the right place.” Tingle spent the next seven days in treatment.
And then a year later, after focusing on his recovery and his comedy, Tingle made his debut on The Tonight Show. Carson’s introduction of Tingle dates back to that TV appearance. But to Tingle, making it to The Tonight Show was less about a comedic achievement and more about the concept that people not only can change, but also the government can and should play a role in that.
At a time when young progressive candidates are grabbing headlines for pushing the Democratic Party to the left, Tingle doesn’t need to be pushed. The 63-year-old was already there way before them, addressing issues like big money in politics, health care as a right, and gun safety laws, but all by way of comedy.
When Tingle appeared on The Tonight Show in 1988, he used the platform to comically lobby for changes in gun laws. At the time, there was a debate over whether Congress would enact a seven day waiting period to buy guns. Tingle joked, “A seven day waiting period to buy a gun and Congress opposes it?! It takes eight days to get a phone installed.” And later Tingle would appear on shows from Conan O’Brien to 60 Minutes II using comedy to address political issues.
Now Tingle seeks to turn those comedic jibes into policy because he deeply believes in the power of the government to help people.
“So much of what I have in life directly comes from the government being there in the time of need,” Tingle explained, first citing the federal GI Bill, which enabled his father to buy their family home, where his 91-year-old mother still lives. And he touched on the addiction recovery program that likely saved his life, which was government funded.
As Tingle noted, however, being a comedian is a double-edged sword. “My comedy experience helps me connect with people in an audience,” he told me. But he added, “There are some who just think of me as a comedian, not someone focused on policy.”
That latter view typically changes when Tingle speaks about the nuance of policy. In 2009, he went back to school at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he received a master’s degree. Tingle joked of the experience, “The best part of going back to school in your 50s is that you get a school ID and the senior discount.”
When I asked why he doesn’t just keep using comedy to discuss the issues he cares about, Tingle responded bluntly: “Being an entertainer won’t change policy.” He noted that comedy can raise awareness but added, “All the jokes in the world won’t enact policy to reduce gun violence or help people overcome an opioid addiction or provide health care to all Americans.”
Maybe it’s his Boston accent, which conjures up a working-class Kennedy, or that he wears his heart on his sleeve, but Tingle is a guy you want to root for. In June, when Tingle was introduced at the Massachusetts Democratic convention, he was met with perfunctory applause. But by the end of his speech, after he passionately spoke of addressing the opioid crisis, bringing high-speed trains to Boston, and helping the working poor and convicted felons get a new start, the crowd was cheering “Jimmy!” “Jimmy!”
Tingle’s opponent for the Democratic nomination is Quentin Palfrey, a former senior White House adviser for science and technology in the Obama administration. While Tingle is better known, Palfrey did get the support of over 50 percent of the delegates at last month’s Democratic convention to Tingle’s 42 percent.
But since then, Tingle has been making some strides. Just a week ago, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) endorsed Tingle, declaring that the comedian has “been on the front lines of democratic and social activist causes for over 30 years. If you’re looking for a true progressive in this race, there’s no one more progressive than Jimmy Tingle.”
Former Rep. Barney Frank is an honorary chair of Tingle’s campaign, and Tingle recently racked up the endorsements of a range of state and local Democrats.
If Tingle prevails, he will run with the Democrat who wins the gubernatorial nomination and take on Republican incumbents Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Governor Karyn Polito.
But Tingle’s run for office makes a lot of sense. In the time of Trump, comedians from Jimmy Kimmel to Stephen Colbert to Samantha Bee have been playing a growing role in raising political issues. Tingle is looking to take that one step further and not just get laughs but actually change policy.