No, Seriously

The GOP’s Comedy Gap

Republican joke-writers were shocked by Ted Cruz’s smoothly comedic performance at the Gridiron Club this weekend. And yes, there is such a thing as Republican joke-writers.

Joe Mitchell/Reuters

Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz had the most to lose appearing before the elite group of journalists known as the Gridiron Club Saturday night. But he gamely appeared in the required dress of white tie and tails, and truth is he didn’t look all that uncomfortable. He joked about how his anti-media speech had gone over so well the previous day at CPAC, the annual gathering of conservatives, and how he made sure to hightail it out of there before they learned about his plans for the following evening.

“The ambiance is different,” he mused, noting with perfect pitch that the Gridiron is “more high brow,” and speaking here “would take some edge off my populist image,” maybe help him “fit in with the smart set.”

He already had the crowd of some 600 Washington insiders guffawing when he recalled his 21-hour Green Eggs and Ham talkathon last year, “hearing nothing but my favorite sound,” he said. “We’re talking Biden territory here,” he added, an in-the-know reference to the vice president’s loquaciousness. “How this town works, they cut me off right when I was getting to my point,” he exclaimed.

Doing well at the Gridiron is a rite of passage that not everybody survives. “I don’t know where Cruz got his material, it didn’t look like L.A. writers,” Landon Parvin, the GOP’s veteran go-to-guy for humor, tells The Daily Beast. “It looked natural to him.” That’s the highest praise for a politician, and in Cruz’s case that he could bring off two such very different speeches: red meat for the base one day, and the next day, deliver remarks that have the dreaded media elite admiring how he was able to poke fun at himself.

Self-deprecating humor is the key to these speeches, and the search is on in Washington for whoever helped Cruz craft his jokes and helped him with the delivery. Calls and an e-mail to Cruz’s office in Washington were not returned, and there is the possibility of course that Cruz, a Harvard-trained lawyer with a super-duper high IQ, wrote his speech himself. He is not short on self-confidence, noting that he’s been called a “pompous condescending know-it-all… At Harvard Law School, they even have a word for it—alumni.”

More laughter from the intelligentsia, and more warm and fuzzy feelings for Cruz, who has an opportunity now to perhaps rebuild some of the bridges he burned with his own party. Referring to new memoir written by Charlie Crist, a former Republican turned Independent now running for governor in Florida as a Democrat, about how “excluded and rejected” he felt by the Republican Establishment, “It spoke to me Charlie, “I feel your pain.”

Secretary of State John Kerry filled in for President Obama declaring at the outset he knew he wasn’t the Club’s first choice – or his meaning the president’s. Kerry, who has a reputation for being stiff and humorless, performed well, making the most of his signature line from his failed 2004 presidential race, telling Cruz it must be nice to be in a roomful of people “who are laughing with you and not against you,” and noting Crist was “for the GOP before he was against it.” Syndicated columnist Mark Shields, a Gridiron member, said Kerry "hit it out of the park. If he had been half as good in '04 as he was Saturday night, in delivery and substance and style – and naturalness – we would have had Vice President John Edwards, and that would have been fascinating."

But the Gridiron’s afterglow reflected mainly on Cruz because he had shown a side of himself that most of the political class in Washington didn’t know existed. Assuming he did the smart thing and sought some professional help, the search is on for the new comic genius in town. The shortage of joke writers on the Republican side is a problem says Parvin. “I tried to get some LA writers to help but they didn’t want to work for Republicans; they would work for some Republicans but not all.”

Writing humor for political figures is a high-risk enterprise which Parvin more than most understands. He came up with the skit that had President Bush searching everywhere for WMD (weapons of mass destruction) at the White House Correspondents dinner in the spring of 2006. It backfired making it seem Bush didn’t take seriously the loss of life that accompanied the futile search for WMD. “We thought it was self-deprecating,” says Parvin. “Humor is a risk. You go up to the line and you look over it and sometimes you go over it and you don’t mean to. We mistook self-deprecating—we didn’t get it right.”

Comedians get to try their material in small clubs, says Parvin. “Here you open and close in one night. You don’t have a chance to test the material.” And a mistake can follow a politician for a long time. “A lot of times when you’re sitting around with the president at the end of the day making jokes, it sounds funnier than it does the next day,” says Parvin. Whatever Cruz’s secret weapon is, he got the Gridiron formula right. For a freshman senator who has broken so many rules and made so many enemies in his short time in Washington, fitting in seamlessly with one of the city’s oldest journalistic traditions is a triumph he should savor.

One of only three senators to vote against Kerry’s confirmation as secretary of state Cruz said he in one of his best lines of many that he could make all kinds of excuses, like “I actually voted for it before I voted against it.” But let’s put it behind us, he said, turning to a smiling Kerry. “You squeaked by with 97 votes. We in the Gang of Three have other fights to lose.”