Monday, April 4, 2011

WATCH: Arizona Rep. Ben Quayle Kills, Dies At Congressional Correspondents' Dinner; Not As Bad As Paper Made It Out To Be

Comedy is tough.  Political comedy is tougher.  Political comedy for a politician is tougher, still.  Arizona rookie Rep. Ben Quayle (R-CD3) took a crack at it last week, whiffed on a couple, fouled a couple more, and connected on a couple of others.  He even was on the receiving end of a couple of shots, and left the game standing.

Arizona's Politics has been on the DL much of the time recently and had not heard about Quayle's call up to the big leagues until the Arizona Republic panned his debut.  Thanks to C-Span, we are able to go to the tape (how quaint that sounds) and run a few instant replays.

The Congressional Correspondents' Dinner was last Wednesday night, and it featured three freshman lawmakers and one veteran in the comedy/roasting slots (evenly split from the GOP and the Dems).  NY Rep. Anthony Weiner (Dem.) was easily the most comfortable with the assignment and probably exceeded the professional comic (Larry Wilmore from "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart").  Quayle and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) bookended Weiner and seemed equally uncertain about whether they should be repeating the jokes that were on the note cards in front of them. (Actually, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) preceded Quayle to the microphone and uncomfortably - repeatedly - joked about how a staff member was going to be fired for each bad joke, leading to an increase in the unemployment figures. Laugh or else.)

Quayle's seven-minute routine did everything it was supposed to - mention the other speakers, roast a portion of the media that invited you, make some standard late-night jokes about members of both political parties, gently poke fun at yourself (or, in Quayle's case, his father), and close with sincere praise for the media organization that invited him.  Some were funny, some were not.

(If you want to watch the routine before reading the transcripts of some of the speech and our critiques, please skip right to the video below the jump.  If you want a condensed version, read on.)

In fact, his routine would have generated zero interest from the national and local press, if not for the uncomfortable joke he opened with.  He tried to substitute (popular political website, which has some sort of affiliation agreement with the Arizona Republic) for Barack Obama in playing off of his buzzed-about campaign commercial decrying the worst President in history.  In doing so, he appeared to be seriously saying that Politico had no credibility.  That drew surprised groans and silence.  Here's the transcript of the segment:

It's a little weird for me to be speaking at an event that's sponsored by the media.  Although I come from a newspaper family, we seem to have a strained relationship with the press.  'Strained' is the polite term for 'troubled'. And, 'the press' is a generous term for 'Politico'.  Y'know, it took everything I had not to refer to Politico as 'the worst media outlet in history.' 

Quayle got a mixed reaction to that line, so he continued with what could have been a good kicker:  "It's not that I don't believe that assertion, but I don't want to get into hyperbole."  That line could have sunk in and he could have given a winking kind of expression that would have let everyone know that he was just funnin' them;  instead, after each of his laugh lines, he looked down at his notes rather than letting the audience know that he was not being serious. 

He moved on to reference the other speakers, using Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) to make a Nancy Pelosi joke and Richmond to segue into a committee that they are both on:

Homeland Security is a major concern of mine because I am adamant about protecting Arizona's border... mainly with California.  But, not to worry, Secretary Napolitano just released a statement saying that the Arizona-California border is more secure now than ever before.
The first part of that joke got a hearty laugh, but silence for the second part.  Hmmm, either the audience did not get it (doubtful), they love Napolitano (doubtful), or they saw it coming down Broadway (maybe).  Perhaps if Quayle had smiled at it himself instead of having his head down (looking at the notes).

After poking fun at Paul and using Weiner to make an Elliott Spitzer joke (that was sharp enough to draw a few "ooo's" from the audience and a smirk from Quayle), came perhaps his best joke of the night:

Campaigns are filled with twists and turns.  My campaign featured a mailer with a photo of me playing with my nieces.  And I was immediately accused of renting a family for political gain.  Let me be clear, I am fiscally conservative.  I don't rent - I pay cash!  And, I REFUSE to leave this country worse off for our nieces and our grand-nieces.
Clever.  It should have received a grand laugh.  However, he not only stepped on the two laugh lines, but he looked down at his notes at least nine times in the 27 seconds he used to deliver it.

Much of the rest of his presentation was filled with OK jokes.  The Republic's Nowicki did note that Quayle did interject "Jeez, tough crowd" at one point.  He actually appeared to get a mixed response to that segment, which is transcribed her because it included a semi-serious, honest comment on a theme that we might see in the future:

Now, during my campaign, I said I was coming here with the intention of knocking the hell out of Washington.  It's been a few months, and well, this could take some time.  But I do usually reach my goals.  Among my credits are having passed the bar in California, New York and Arizona.  I've passed more bars than Mit Romney stumping in Vegas.  (mixed laughter) Geez, tough crowd.
Quayle seemed to loosen up as he moved towards the end of the comedy portion of his speech and received some applause for a couple of them.  He then gave a very nice personal tribute to recently-deceased political reporter/columnist David Broder.  And, his closing line was gracious:

I'd like to thank all of you for the important and often thankless work that you do for this country.... Well, those of us in elected office probably complain about you more than we praise you, we appreciate and value the vital work you do for this country.  Thank you very much.
The criticisms that Quayle received from skewered Politico writers and others may have been a bit too harsh.  But, Quayle did deserve some of it - if he had been more comfortable with his jokes and more familiar with his lines, he would have supplied more facial expressions and less looking down at his notes, and would have pulled off a good political comedy speech.

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