Writers Who Can Write Funny

By Jack Limpert

The surprise when I read Mark Leibovich’s This Town was how funny it was. I had read the reviews—David Shribman in the New York Times, Carlos Lozada in the Washington Post, Andrew Ferguson in the Wall Street Journal—and hadn’t come away with the feeling that Leibovich’s look at the behavior of Washington insiders had lots of laugh-out-loud moments. But the laughs are there—as many as I can ever remember finding in a book about Washington.

Then Ron Goldfarb posted a good review of This Town on the Washington Independent Review of Books website— he calls it “a clever blend of juicy dish and smart sociology that describes the most powerful city on earth.” Goldfarb, a lawyer who knows books and writing, goes on to come up with a syllabus for “a course on the unofficial real politics of Washington.” The course would have lessons on “The Place, The Revolving Door, The Lobbyists, The Media, Formers, The Permanent Elite.”

In my years at The Washingtonian I had searched for writers who could make a reader laugh about the city. In the early 1970s, the reigning funny writer in Washington was Art Buchwald, a syndicated columnist who did some freelancing. I invited him to lunch at Sans Souci, then the expensive in-crowd restaurant, asked him to do a humor piece for The Washingtonian, and gave him some ideas that I thought could work in the magazine. He liked one of them and agreed to do it. The deadline came and went and I called to ask how he was doing. “Oh,” he said, “I sold that to Playboy.”

In July 1976, the nation’s bicentennial, Queen Elizabeth was visiting Washington and Simon Winchester, a British journalist based in DC, wrote a funny piece, “What Do You Say to a Queen.” Eugene McCarthy, after life as a U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, teamed with cartoonist Jeff MacNelly in 1978 on a wonderful “Political Bestiary.”

Getting the most laughs in the 1980s was Joe Bob Briggs, a Texas writer who mostly made fun of movies but did some pieces for The Washingtonian when he needed money. The one that got the most laughs and attention was his April 1988 story “Brunch of the Living Dead.” The deck line: “Joe Bob Briggs, king of the drive-in-movie reviewers, turns his redneck eye on Washington’s television pundits.” He had the most fun with the bombastic John McLaughlin and his group.

Also funny back them were Howard Means (a piece on the notecards President Reagan might have used when answering questions at a press conference), Victor Gold (if the Mafia ran Washington), Dick Victory (who created a character named Blockhead to explain the city) and Diana McLellan,who brought her British wit to bear on social and political Washington.

The star of the 90s was Andrew Ferguson, now at the Weekly Standard. Andy had the most fun with “Crashing the Country Clubs: You Can Get Into a Country Club If You Have the Time and Money and Can Play the Game, But Don’t Call.” His best moments came when he called clubs like Congressional and Burning Tree to ask: “Hi. My name’s Andy Ferguson, and I was wondering who I might speak to about applying for membership in the club….”

At the Washington Post in the 1970s and 80s,  Henry Mitchell did wonderful stories about gardening and life that made everyone smile, and Tony Kornheiser wrote a lot of funny columns, mostly about sports, in the 1980s and 90s but then started making so much money talking on television that his Post columns faded away.

Washington after 9/11 hasn’t seemed as funny. Gene Weingarten continues to write a weekly humor column in the Post—I asked one of the city’s smartest journalists what he thinks of him: “Weingarten writes with the sole purpose of trying to make you laugh. Anyone who tries that on a weekly basis has my sympathies. The most effective humor is the kind that occurs along the way while the writer is taking you someplace else. If he’s wearing a big sandwich board that says ‘I’m Being Funny Now,’ he’s made an insurmountable burden for himself. But if he’s explaining an idea or reporting an event or telling a story and the humor emerges naturally from his handling of the material, it will be much more satisfying.”

A good explanation of why Mark Leibovich’s This Town is such a good window into high-profile Washington and is so much fun to read.

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To give a flavor of Joe Bob Briggs’s writing, here are short excerpts from the April 1988 Washingtonian story “Brunch With the Living Dead.” The first excerpts focus on the PBS show Washington Week in Review; the second excerpts are about The McLaughlin Group. Also written about in the story were Inside Washington and This Week With David Brinkley. As Joe Bob says in his intro: “I’ve seen more than 8,000 exploitation movies in my lifetime, and I can say, beyond any doubt whatsoever, these are some of the finest horror shows ever produced.”
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Let’s start off with the granddaddy of em all, the one that started this whole era of zombie talk shows, Washington Week in Review, also known as:

Brunch With the Living Dead

It might surprise many of you to find out this show scored a very strong 74 on the Joe Bob Briggs Political-Talk-Show-Crock Meter, making it the kind of show you can watch for just three weeks and lose all memory of the existence of sexual organs. This is the first sign of a great one, when your eyes, ears, and limbs lose all feeling and your mouth utters the word “caucus” without thinking….

Anyhow, let’s break this deal down into all the compulsory scores:

The “Bowling for Dollars” Factor: These points are awarded for the degree of resemblance between the talk-show set and the set of Bowling for Dollars. Washington Week in Review consists of a blue table and a gray wall. Score: A perfect 10.

The Bad Hair Factor: It’s essential that every guest on the Washington talk show have little or no hair and bad eyesight….

The “Gal” Factor: At least one woman on the panel, to get the point across that “we let girls play.” Ideally she would resemble the wicked stepsister Griselda and wear a collar that’s wrapped so tight around her neck that her whole head got forced up through a sink drain. She’ll need some padded shoulders and hair that wouldn’t move in hurricane-force winds. Young gals, like Ellen Hume of the Wall Street Journal, got problems due to the last little pieces of femininity that are still threatening their talk show careers, which may be why she looks like a deer on the  first day of season….

Huge Corporate Sponsor Factor: Any decent political talk show has to have a disguised sponsor. So, for example, if it’s a big chemical company, you run commercials about crippled kids that need chemicals for their therapy….

The Bicker Meter: Very simple—how much do they really hate one another? On Washington Week in Review, the Bicker Meter scores extremely low. About the only times it registers are when the decisive Jack Nelson looks at the impetuous Christine Russell and says, “This anti-abortion thing, it probably isn’t all that popular across the country, is it?”

The Duff  Detector: Nobody  on a political talk show should ever actually know anything. It takes too long to know anything. To know anything, you’ve got to take long airplane rides, hassle with people who don’t want to talk to you, go to the library. And read actual books. Nobody  has time for this. That’s why you need to quote the Washington Post a lot or, better yet, have Haynes Johnson on your show….
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Lifestyles of the Learning Disabled

This show is the gravelly-voice, pit-bull-dog champion of the airwaves, the first show that looked like it was put together by alcoholic wrestling promoters. Right away, John McLaughlin, the jowly Nixonite himself, starts screaming into the microphone like a bullfrog on acid: “In New Hampshire it’s clear that the gloves are off! Pat!” This is the animal’s trainer command for Pat Buchanan to bark out the first two or three words that come into his mind….By the time you figure out what he said, three other people on the show have already talked. It’s the new talk-show technique called “Dyslexic free association.”

Bad Hair Factor: Morton Kondracke of the New Republic, the only “kid” ever allowed on the show, has one of those Frankie Avalon hair helmets that looks like the end of a dirty Q-tip. This is balanced on the other extreme by Jack Germond of the Baltimore Evening Sun, who’s evidently in training to be a Tibetan monk, and Robert Novak of the Chicago Sun-Times, who’s got white hair, a nose recently broken by a tire tool, and eyesockets so deep that Weyerhauser can film commercials in there. McLaughlin looks like Captain Binghamton in McHale’s Navy.

Bicker Meter: Sometimes Novak and McLaughlin both look like they’re gonna spontaneously combust, specially when they’re talking about something like homos-in-the-Army, but it always makes Morton Kondracke so nervous that he blurts out some weenie remark….If Dave Gergen is around, he brings the whole deal to  a halt by opening his mouth and astounding the audience by his uncanny resemblance to the Cat in the Hat.

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