At media dinner, Congress is no laughing matter

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) warmed up the crowd at the 70th Annual Congressional Dinner Wednesday night with some bi-partisan humor. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) then took the stage to try their hand at stand-up comedy. (JulieAnn McKellogg/The Washington Post)

It’s not really supposed to be a competition between the two members of Congress who traditionally perform jokey standup-style acts at the annual Washington Press Club Foundation dinner.

But Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.), one of the headliners at Wednesday night’s media-Congress mixer, announced that the assembled crowd of reporters, members of Congress and staffers was in for a comedy throwdown between herself and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who shared the evening’s duty of attempting to entertain.

“Poor Jeff. When they asked me to do this whole battle I was a little bit nervous,” Edwards said. “But then I found out it was against this guy.” Then she made fun of him for being bad at spelling.

Awkward. And things didn’t get any better. If this had been a competition, Edwards would have come up short, offering a routine that drew few laughs but plenty of cringes.

Her material hit plenty of off notes: A few parts were too insidery (remember the congressional spelling bee, she asked as a set-up to a punchline? Um, nope.). Other bits were oddly laced with sexual innuendo, like when she said she and Flake found time to work together. “I mean in a Cialis commercial kind of way.”

Huh?

Missing was the self-deprecation that makes that kind of barb-throwing funny. The consensus of the unamused crowd seemed to be that she should have ended where she began, with a brief video spoofing the hit ABC show “Scandal,” involving a plot line of her — playing the show’s lead character, Olivia Pope — caught in a steamy smooch with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). (In real life, there’s a sweet picture of Boehner and Edwards sharing a friendly kiss at a breast-cancer benefit.)

Hard to believe the gags were the work of professionals. At the end of the routine, Edwards thanked the team that helped her pen them, which included “Daily Show” co-creator Lizz Winstead.

“She probably paid good money for those jokes,” marveled one Democratic staffer queuing up at the bar for a post-dinner drink. “Hard to believe.”

And one former Republican aide who had once helped prep her boss for the same gig said Edwards’s bomb would serve as a cautionary tale: “It’s like sports — you look at the tape, and this one will be a what-not-to-do.”

Flake fared far better. Not that it’s a competition!

His gentle jabs at his Mormon faith drew laughs. “My wife is here tonight … my only wife.” Har-har. And he mocked his spot at the top of The Hill newspaper’s “Most Beautiful” list, explaining that he’d only won the title because “Scott Brown has left town,” a reference to the former Republican senator from Massachusetts, who is also a former model.

Even emcee Brianna Keilar of CNN, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) cracked the crowd up in their roles as warm-up acts. Thune made a reference to 1997, calling that era “John Boehner’s light-orange years,” and Pelosi joked that if CNN journalists in the room started scurrying, it would be for a good reason: “You’ll know one thing for sure —  Justin Bieber is on the move.”

Keilar took aim at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, noting that he’d been called in to help the Olympic ski team: “They think he’s so good at going downhill fast.”

It’s a tough gig, to be sure. And funny-on-purpose isn’t what Congress does best.

Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.
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Emily Heil · February 6