AJR logo     

 AJR  Drop Cap

From AJR,   December 1998  issue

From Deadlines to Punch Lines   

By Amy Jeter
Amy Jeter is a former AJR editorial assistant.     

USA Today political columnist Walter Shapiro thinks of himself as a superhero of sorts.

By day, he's, yes, a mild-mannered reporter, bespectacled and balding, cranking out 1,700 words of political commentary each week.

But one night a month, he goes to a place called Gotham Comedy Club and unleashes his alter ego: the stand-up comedian.

"It's just another persona, a way of having fun and expressing myself," says the 51-year-old Shapiro, who is based in New York. "I find my midlife crisis [doing stand-up] far more wholesome than, to pick a human being at random, Bill Clinton's."

Since being "discovered" three years ago while making a speech for the YWCA in Greenwich, Connecticut, Shapiro has graced stages in Washington, D.C., and New York, waxing humorous on topics ranging from nervous Democrats on window ledges to the Christian Coalition.

But he's not the only one. Journalists from all media are stepping up to the microphone, however briefly, to strut their decidedly subjective stuff in the sink-or-swim arena of live comedy.

"In print you communicate fact, truth, analysis; but on stage it's pure playfulness," says Matt Cooper, deputy Washington bureau chief for Newsweek. Cooper does impressions of Clinton and other political figures and on occasion appears in Shapiro's "Boomer Humor" show, which features a lineup of baby boomer comics. "It's true for a lot of reporters: some of the more interesting thoughts and insights end up on the cutting room floor because they can't be factually confirmed."

Cooper, who has been performing for about a year and a half, plays off of news events in his material, taking, for example, Clinton's propensity for mischief and Gore's straight-laced nervousness and translating them into a skit about teenagers smoking marijuana. Clinton's the one inhaling, and Gore's the one paying the consequences.

Shapiro's wisecracks also make light of the tribulations of his profession. "Everybody is announcing grand jury leaks. Everybody has them. But me. I am the Rodney Dangerfield of investigative reporting," he says.

In the world of comedy, where everyone from lawyers to firefighters is moonlighting behind the microphone, a journalist's brand of humor is appreciated, says Andy Engel, an independent producer who books talent at Caroline's Comedy Club in Manhattan.

A political junkie and a fan of Shapiro's writing, Engel says journalists are the thinking person's comedians, with acts that include obscure references "that work."

Shapiro, who also co-authors Chatterbox, a column for the online magazine Slate, says his journalistic writing and his comedy occasionally feed off one another "like a global corporation. We like to look at this as synergistic." His creative process for developing a show differs from his usual writing ritual, however.

"One, there are no phone calls. Two, it doesn't require two sources," he says. "If it's funny, it doesn't have to be true. If it's true, it doesn't matter if it's not funny."

Tony Snow, the host of "Fox News Sunday," has twice participated in the annual Funniest Celebrity in Washington Contest in D.C. He says he dreads writing his comedy sets.

"It's a horrifying experience, writing your own jokes," he says. "When you become comfortable with one style of writing, you're acutely aware of what your day job is."

Cooper says he prepares by practicing material on co-workers--his "focus group." Westwood One Radio's Jim Bohannon, also a contest participant, says he saves notes of humorous moments from his radio programs.

But if these self-described "hams" have difficulty creating a show, they report no problems performing it. With experience giving public speeches and television commentary, few journalist-comedians will acknowledge experiencing stage fright.

Almost no one will admit to a joke that bombed, either--except Shapiro, who once auditioned unsuccessfully for the "Late Show with David Letterman."

Although he operates a mini-publicity campaign for his comedy, complete with mailing list and videos, Shapiro says it's unlikely he'll give up his life as a journalist. But Jane Condon, a fellow performer in the tag-team "Boomer Humor" show, is someone who did.

She wrote for magazines, among them Fortune and Life, for about 10 years. Then in 1988, she says, she found her true calling when she made audiences laugh during speeches publicizing her book on women in Japan.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, if you think that's funny, you should hear about my life in Greenwich,' " says Condon, who is known in comedy circles as the "J. Crew Mother of Two."

"I don't miss journalism," she says. "What I miss is the Time Warner stock."