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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

"Guy walks into a press briefing..."

Wonks and wits alike trade quips in the Beltway's annual comedy bakeoff

By Jamie Malanowski/Washington

TIME magazine

Norman Ornstein is a wonk, a wonk's wonk, maybe the wonk di tutti wonks. As a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, he not only talks the wonk's talk, he also walks the wonk's walk. His admission that he is the co-chair of the President's Advisory Committee on the Obligations of Digital Broadcasters trips off his tongue with alacrity. But like so many of the earnest wonks of Washington, he longs to be loved for more than his mind. He wants to be thought of as funny.

Which is an odd thing, for funny is not the way serious-minded people get ahead in America. The road to the White House is littered with bodies of wits like Fred Harris and Mo Udall and Bob Dole. Business leaders and college presidents--they're not funny. Being funny is not even the way certified funny people get ahead. Robin Williams won his Oscar for one of his suffering-psychiatrist parts. Steve Martin now works with David Mamet.

And so it comes as a surprise that last week Ornstein and nine other serious people took the stage at the Improv on Connecticut Avenue to vie for the title of Washington's Funniest Celebrity. Obviously the fact that it was all for a good cause, to benefit the Child Welfare League of America, gave the would-be comics flop insurance, but none of these people came to have their efforts patronized. They were in it for the glory.

Perhaps the biggest wild card of the evening was William Ginsburg, Monica Lewinsky's former attorney, who had flown in from the Coast. He came on third, after complaining before the show that he was in trial and hadn't worked on his act. Well, whatever else he picked up in Washington, he learned the expectations game. True, most of his jokes were chestnuts he no doubt hoarded from ABA conventions, but he effectively tailored them to the event. "What's the difference between a catfish and Ken Starr?" he asked. "One is a bottom-dwelling, scum-sucking scavenger. The other is just a fish." Later he told of a store where an ounce of lawyers' brains cost $75 and an ounce of journalists' brains cost $1 million. The clerk explained the discrepancy: "Do you know how many journalists we had to kill to get an ounce of brains?" Ginsburg had his needle out.

The next contender was Matt Cooper of Newsweek, the odds-on favorite to win (though, having actually performed at the Improv, he was regarded the way Soviet-bloc Olympians used to be: as suspiciously professional). The round, bald Cooper suggested that Al Gore might try to copy Bill Clinton's formula for success and have an affair, then dismissed it with a riff on the media's skeptical reaction. "How do we know?" he had scornful reporters saying. "There's no DNA on the dress! Prove it!" Alone among the contestants, Cooper could do passably good imitations, including of Clinton and Gore as teenagers smoking pot. "C'mon," the easygoing Clinton says. "Let's get some pizza and listen to Eat a Peach." To which the uptight Gore responds, "I am freaking out! My mother's going to know!"

Next came Ornstein. Peering out from behind his horn-rims, he underplayed the audience into his hands. He jabbed at last year's winner, CNBC's Chris Matthews, noting that Matthews hadn't yet picked up his prize, a case of Ritalin. He said that Newt Gingrich was going to make some commercial endorsements now, but only those befitting the dignity of his office: "So far, the only one he's accepted is from Bob's Big Boy." He confessed that his naivete had left him unprepared for this year's events: "I used to think that being in bed with Big Tobacco had something to do with pac contributions."

The funny lines kept coming. Radio personality Jim Bohannon wondered how someone could date a woman as indiscreet as Linda Tripp. "You'd think if you unhooked you'd hear a dial tone." Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, the rather whiny Clinton critic from MSNBC, did something unique to the evening: she engaged in self-mockery, with a long riff on television "pundettes"--"someone who says the same thing over and over and over, but never wears the same dress twice"--and then, even more bravely, actually sang a smoky number called The Pundette Blues.

Cooper won. It was his year. Ginsburg came in second and Ornstein third. Some thought Ginsburg was graded a bit high. But there were no sour grapes. "When you do something like this," Ornstein said, "and people laugh, it's just--great!" Dreams do come true. The man came in a wonk, but left feeling like Howie Mandel.


Cover Date: November 23, 1998

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