Hill staffer Sean O'Brien mines Congress for comedy gold
Friday, July 23, 2010
They can be so careful, those Hill staffers.
Don't offend. Don't opine. Don't upstage the boss. Don't. Don't. Don't.
Most live under a virtual gag order, an invisible shackle on free speech tightly imposed by tradition -- written nowhere, understood everywhere. Woe to the legislative assistant or office manager who makes a peep in public without getting three sets of approvals.
Then there's Sean O'Brien.
O'Brien has lots to let out. And he hasn't let that little matter of serving as chief of staff to the gentleman from Illinois, Mr. Quigley, get in the way. In O'Brien's eyes, the Hill exists in a suspended state of constant hilarity -- much of it unintentional. Wardrobe malfunctions during magnetometer pat-downs, tickle-party naughtiness, slumbering senators. Where else would O'Brien get to hear Marion Berry, the not-so-gentlemanly Democratic gentleman from Arkansas, calling another congressman a "Howdy Doody-looking nimrod"?
"Talk about material," O'Brien says one afternoon over a lunch of gloppy Thai food served on a recycled plate in a crowded congressional cafeteria. "You just can't make it up."
O'Brien channels the absurdity of Capitol Hill into a one-man comedy show, the ultimate departure from a congressional gag order. The hour-long performance establishes the 35-year-old chief of staff with the floppy hair and the boyish looks as that rarest of creatures: a satirist breaking out of the fraidy-cat culture silencing so many Hill staffers. Think Capitol Steps, but R-rated and no clever ditties.
Onstage at the Goethe-Institut, a snug venue on the edge of Chinatown, O'Brien even rolls out -- mercy! -- four-letter words. A whole lot of f-ing this and f-ing that. Then again, he was well trained in this regard. He pulled a stretch as an intern for Rahm Emanuel -- whose tombstone will surely come with the warning that "some material may be inappropriate for children under the age of 13" -- back when the president's chief of staff held the same seat as O'Brien's current boss, Mike Quigley.
"I wouldn't say I learned any new swear words from him," O'Brien says. "But the combinations, I would never have imagined." O'Brien was particularly enamored of Emanuel's pairing of the f-word and "knuckle" as an all-purpose interjection: "Hey you, knuckle f . . . !"
'Now that's comedy!'
O'Brien's show -- "McSwiggin's Pub," which takes to the Fringe Headquarters stage, 612 L St. NW, at 4:30 p.m. Saturday for the last of a six-show run -- is situated in a fictional Capitol Hill bar. Three members of Congress attended Wednesday night's show, including O'Brien's boss, who did not force him to activate a COBRA plan. The characters are inspired by O'Brien's experiences on the Hill, each an amalgam pasted together from snatches of the chief of staff's days. Inspiration once came from his pal Rob Ellsworth, who is now chief of staff for Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho). The two were yukking it up about the outsize affection young Hill types have for a concoction made from Red Bull and vodka.
Ellsworth deadpanned that he takes his Red Bull vodkas -- RBVs in the lingo of the non-grizzled -- "sugar free."
"Now that's comedy!" O'Brien remembers thinking. "It wasn't in the show. But now it is!" (For the record, Ellsworth, having reached the advanced age of 26, not to mention chief-of-staff status, now hastens to point out that he has moved on to "more adult beverages.")