At D.C. Improv, 'Celebrities' Bring the Funny

Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher at the DC Improv for the Funniest Celebrity in Washington Contest.
Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher at the DC Improv for the Funniest Celebrity in Washington Contest. (Dan Zak - The Washington Post)
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009; 12:59 PM

The funniest celebrity in Washington is Austan Goolsbee and, yes, you are pardoned for not knowing who that is. He's one of the White House's wiry economists. He won first place at the annual Funniest Celebrity in Washington contest last night at the D.C. Improv, where politicians, lobbyists, media folk and hangers-on paid anywhere from $200 to $5,000 to find out that Chef Geoff's mouth is dirty enough to fail a health code inspection.

Goolsbee triumphed over eight other "celebrities" by ripping off Kevin Nealon's Mr. Subliminal routine from "Saturday Night Live." Goolsbee rambled about current events, interjecting under-his-breath judgments in between innocuous observations. For example: "I would like to say one thing about major banks (ungrateful [expletives]) . . . " He also used this subversive format to call honored guest Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) a "Benedict Arnold" for voting against the health bill's public option, and to deem himself a "future Fed chair." It was amusing, if not technically funny, and that was more than enough to sway a panel of judges made up of journalists and some poor soul in a GEICO gecko costume.

U.S. News and World Report reporter Anna Mulrine deployed the first of two jokes at the expense of the event itself, which began in 1987 and hasn't exactly lived up to its charitable mission, as the Reliable Source reported earlier this week.

"I talked to Tim Geithner and he said he ran the whole thing through Turbo Tax, so it's fine," she deadpanned.

The most famous contestant was Joe Wurzelbacher, alias Joe the Plumber, who is not so much a plumber as an ex-employee of a plumbing contractor. He interrupted his tea-party speaking tour to try his hand at stand-up comedy. Wurzelbacher -- who says he was invited by fellow competitor Grover Norquist, president of the anti-tax lobbying group Americans for Tax Reform, which was giving out tote bags to attendees -- did not write his own material. Before the competition, a friend printed out his lines in black marker on oversized blue index cards.

"I probably haven't given it enough work," admitted Joe the ex-Plumber, drinking a Bud Light, wearing an untucked flannel shirt, looking like he just walked off the set of a CBS sitcom. "They're gonna laugh at me one way or another."

Anything else he'd like to add before he goes on?

"Freedom is a responsibility," he said.

"I intend to bomb!" declared eyebrow-y newsman Sam Donaldson, the warm-up act. He did okay with a couple of violent, sexist jokes, but those who followed weren't as lucky. Here were the best (or worst?) lines:

"Take President Obama," said Washington Examiner editor Mark Tapscott, who clumsily lifted half of his act from an e-mail forward on health care that circulated several years ago. "Please take President Obama."

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) took third place by proving that he, at the very least, understood the basic rhythms of standup comedy. "My staff told me not to tell this joke," he said, before launching into the linguistic difference between parties. "Democrats want illegal immigrants to be able to serve on the death panels," he said, "and Republicans want death panels to only serve illegal immigrants."

After reading the Reliable Source story, repeat performer Dan Glickman, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, redirected his $5,000 sponsorship straight to the night's charity, Stand up for Kids, an MPAA representative said. He told a string of Jewish mother jokes before revealing that his Jewish mother had passed away.

Runner-up Norquist conveyed the Obama administration's solution for reducing the cost and consumption of prescription drugs: "At age 70 everybody has to become a Christian Scientist."

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.): "I always thought Grover Norquist was some kind of birth control for Muppets."

And Chef Geoff Tracy gave the "crassest, most profane act we'll see tonight," according to host and Onion editor Baratunde Thurston. In a baseball cap and a white chef uniform, Tracy uncorked a bottle of champagne onstage and went to town.

"What's the difference between your wife and your job?" he asked the audience at one point. "After a couple years, your job still sucks."

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