You have to know your joke didn't go over well when the response from your colleagues comes in a letter beginning, "We, the undersigned."
That's what Rep. Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina, got after a preposterous bit of theater in the Minnesota House this week.
Erhardt is an 85-year-old lawmaker who likes the comedy of David Letterman. He has served 11 terms, nearly consecutively since 1990, when humor was provided by the first season of "The Simpsons" and the launch of the Saturn automobile.
He was a moderate Republican at the time, long before comets rained hellfire on earth, forcing the species underground. Even then he said what he meant and he meant what he said, even when what he said didn't mean much.
In 2008, Erhardt joined Democrats in trying to pass a transportation bill that was vetoed by then Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Republicans responded by failing to endorse Erhardt. His politics didn't waver, but in 2010 he was endorsed by the DFL.
There are probably a lot of giddy Republicans this week.
In case you missed it, the country and particularly Minnesota are in the grip of a horrendous bird flu epidemic that has decimated state poultry farms, killing millions of birds and putting hundreds of farmhands out of work.
You might think this is an excellent opportunity for a good chicken joke (Why did the chicken commit suicide? To get to the other side). You would be wrong.
Too soon. Way too soon.
They say timing is everything in politics and comedy. Let's just say Erhardt missed his cue.
During a discussion on bird flu, which followed a turkey burger feed on the Capitol lawn to reassure consumers that eating poultry wasn't dangerous, the wiry representative put on a doctor's lab coat and a stethoscope and hoisted a big jar labeled as bird flu vaccine.
"This is going to come a little late for some of you because you've already been to lunch, but on Saturday I had a nice turkey dinner and almost immediately after I began feeling signs of flu," Erhardt began. "I was all flued out all day Sunday, so I got here on Monday and I heard about this giveaway, the turkey burger day, and I began to wonder … well I wonder, because I remember a couple of years ago when we had some transference of avian flu to birds and people and I thought 'Well, maybe I think I should mention this. …' "
Erhardt then joked about turkey as "potential poison" as he continued his bit, before being interrupted by a DFL colleague. Any comedian will tell you this is their worst moment; you look around at a full house and nobody is laughing. He was scolded on the floor, the session ended and Erhardt was left there in mid-bit.
During a phone call Friday, Erhardt explained what that was like. "I could see that was a wrongheaded approach," he said. "They left me standing there without finishing my vignette. I thought, wrongly of course, that the Legislature could use a little humor."
But the serious and important people at the Capitol were in no laughing mood. Not only was Erhardt's shtick not funny, it was a "misleading and dilatory act," according to a bipartisan letter of reproach.
"We, the undersigned, feel that Representative Erhardt potentially caused further damage to Minnesota family farmers by suggesting that consumption of Minnesota poultry products is somehow unsafe to humans," the letter said. "He disrespectfully sought a Privilege of the House to make light of a situation that has already led to the death of more than five million birds, the loss of more than 230 jobs, and untold economic impact to the State of Minnesota."
That is probably the harshest critique ever of a poultry joke.
I'd like to report this is the first time Erhardt went with a stand-up routine. But just a few weeks ago, I wrote about how several legislators went askew during a debate on the House floor over a bill discussing penalties for spreading bodily fluids. The bill was launched after a man who repeatedly put his semen into the coffee of a co-worker received light punishment.
During that debate, Erhardt began with a strange anecdote about putting gum under his plate and mentioned a commercial for the television show "Friends," in which one of the characters licks her coffee cup so no one would use it. He pretended to lick a coffee cup to illustrate.
The female victim who drank the tainted coffee was in the gallery and did not appreciate the levity.
Erhardt said Friday that he's always spoken his mind, and probably always will. He said his constituents appreciate that. Only a couple of his constituents responded to the act, Erhardt said, but plenty of others did.
"It's part of the ballgame," said Erhardt. "People were calling me about being on the hot seat. I got punched up a bit. One lobbyist said that sometimes you misstep, and they are going to hit you on the head."
Erhardt wanted to talk about his work on past and future transportation bills, about his dedication to his job and the voters. He's known, and grudgingly admired by opponents, for still knocking on every door in his district at election time.
He also said he really had questions about whether bird flu could spread to humans, but House rules prevented direct questions to other members, thus the failed joke. He since has spoken to Health Department officials and knows eating poultry is not dangerous.
I admit I was having some fun at Erhardt's expense during our conversation, until I asked if he made up the anecdote about eating turkey last week.
"No, I had a big turkey dinner at Byerly's over the weekend," Erhardt said. "I'm a bachelor, ever since I lost my wife several years ago. I often go out there for dinner. They do a nice job."
Gulp. Now I was picturing, not a man capable of a dilatory act, but an 85-year-old man, missing his wife and eating his dinner in a grocery store, wondering if his comfort food is tainted and whether his stint as a comic and legislator may be coming to an end.
Erhardt quickly changed the mood by telling me what he told his caucus after his failed performance in the House.
"I said I didn't sleep well last night because there was something scratching on my window. I sat up and saw a turkey and a hen looking at me. Then I went back to sleep."
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