Bill Clinton cheated on his wife. George W. Bush mangled the English language. Donald Trump tweeted. And Joe Biden ... well, exactly what does the new president offer up to the comedy world?
Robert Baril, the sharpest political commentator on the Twin Cities comedy scene, was already contemplating that question in December during his last stage appearance of the year.
He leaned on the obvious.
"Biden could be the first president to fall asleep during the State of the Union," he said from the Acme Comedy Club stage, in a performance that was recorded for a new album, "2020," which also features Bryan Miller. "He might be the first president to be assassinated by a breeze."
Baril and his peers can coast on "he's so old" jokes for a while, but at some point, the best political standups will have to dig deeper to earn their keep.
"Like Trump, Biden tends to shoot his mouth off," said Baril, who's performing Wednesday and Feb. 11-13 at the Mall of America's House of Comedy. "At some point, he'll try to appropriate Black culture inappropriately, like fist-bumping Kamala Harris when she least expects it."
One subject he plans to stay away from is the president's stutter.
"It's dicey," said Baril. "At first, I was joking about it. But I didn't dig into his personal history enough. Once I found out it's something he's struggled with his whole life, it felt like punching down a bit."
Chicago-based comedian Tim Slagle, a self-described conservative, believes No. 46 will inspire plenty of other material.
"You've got to admire Democrats for electing a funnier candidate than Donald Trump," said Slagle, whose annual "Crash & Burn" showcase has been a Twin Cities tradition for nearly a decade. "He's old. He's gaffe-prone. He kind of reminds me of Hank's dad on 'King of the Hill.' He tends to snap and pretend he's a tough guy, like he wants to wrestle you to the ground. He's truly hilarious."
But Slagle wonders if his fellow comics will treat Biden with kid gloves. That was certainly the case with Barack Obama. The most memorable bit of satire during his eight years in office was Key & Peele's "Anger Translator," a sketch that ultimately had more to say about Obama's cool demeanor than any personal shortcomings.
"The comedy industry voted for him and they didn't like seeing him attacked," Slagle said. "Plus, there was the fact that he was Black. It was really hard to get jokes across that didn't seem somewhat racist. Kamala Harris is going to be untouchable."
Dan Schlissel, founder of the Minneapolis-based label Stand Up! Records, agrees that Obama got something of a free pass, but for different reasons.
"What do you attack? The fact that he loved his mom and is part Hawaiian?" Schlissel said. "He was happily married, didn't have a sex scandal, kept his kids from having a high profile. So he read off a teleprompter. That's not nearly as funny as anything related to Clinton, who loved fast food and fast women. There was nothing to go after comedically."
Sigh of relief
Biden may also end up being an elusive target, especially for late-night TV hosts who have gotten used to bashing the previous president like a low-hanging piñata.
"It's a lot more complicated than going after Trump," said Minnesota native Chloe Radcliffe, who spent much of 2020 as a staff writer on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." "He's the person in power, so that's funny by definition. But saying, 'He's so old he doesn't know how to talk anymore'? That's not a funny sentence. If you make fun of the fact that he's bumbling, it can come across like you're hunting him down."
There's also the matter of timing — and in comedy, timing is everything. Audiences may be exhausted by political humor. Jokes about crummy airline food may suddenly seem funny again.
No one on the circuit believes Trump is going to simply go away, but you can almost hear a collective sigh of relief that he's unlikely to dominate the world of political comedy in the same manner.
"I'm ready to move beyond him," Baril said. "There are lot of performers who called themselves political comics because they would make fun of his grandiose statements. 'Oooh, you really dug down deep for that.' There's other stuff, like race relations. That's a less easy topic to joke about. That's what makes it more interesting."
Tommy Ryman is one of the Twin Cities comics who purposely avoided going after Trump, even when he was at his most vulnerable.
"I don't do many political jokes," said Ryman, who was named Best Local Stand-up Comedian by City Pages in 2016. "People are so tired of them and there are other comics who do them better than me. If some event happens, it'll be talked about, but it won't be a daily thing."
Elephants in the room
One event that's already challenging standups: last month's riots at the U.S. Capitol. Writing material on an insurrection that left five people dead is tricky business.
Most of the comics participating in a subsequent Zoom show, "Inside Voices," avoided the topic, despite the fact it had happened just two days earlier. But Dante Powell, a Des Moines-based comedian, didn't hesitate, riffing on how the word "coup" was pronounced exactly like "coo."
"That's too soft a word," Powell said. "Sounds just like when a baby is being its absolute cutest. You don't say the Taliban did a good job goo-gooing."
The bit earned the biggest laugh of the night.
In a phone interview before the performance, Powell admitted he was exchanging jokes by e-mail with other comics, even as the tragic events were unfolding.
"You have to acknowledge how crazy it is," he said. "You have to find ways to approach these subjects. That's the fun part."
Powell has continued mining the coronavirus for material, wondering aloud how we ever survived in the past without everyone using hand sanitizer.
Schlissel believes comics must acknowledge real-life events, even if it's for a moment.
"You have to address the elephant in the room before you can move on," said Schlissel, who produced firebrand Lewis Black's Grammy-winning 2006 album, "The Carnegie Hall Performance." "Otherwise, people wonder, 'Why isn't he saying anything about it? Is he not taking it seriously enough?' To me the best comedy deals with reality. It's not about escape. You want the audience to feel like they're not alone."
Dying to laugh again
Schlissel is less concerned about comics being able to find good material in 2021 and more worried about where they'll be able to ply their trade.
Many clubs across the country have shut down during the pandemic, some permanently. Minneapolis venues started to reopen in January, with limited capacity for audiences. Expect those restrictions to continue until at least summer.
"Most comics compare what they do to a muscle. In order to stay sharp, you need to exercise it," Schlissel said. "That only happens in front of an audience. You can't do it in front of a mirror. I don't think Zoom was the effective tool they were hoping for."
Those who are able — and willing — to attend live shows in the upcoming months will be eager to show their appreciation.
When Twin Cities clubs were temporarily open last summer and fall, attendees roared at even mundane jokes. Club owners said alcohol sales were unusually high.
"The ones that came out were glad to be doing something other than bingeing on Netflix," Slagle said. "I think comedy is going to do very well. Name acts are dying to get out there. Comedians play clubs like a musical instrument. Every club has its own sound, its own resonance. When you take that away, it's like playing music on a Casio keyboard. It doesn't have the same feel."
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431