Queens Congressman Anthony Weiner spoke at the Congressional Correspondents Dinner this week, and it was well liked. These dinners are events where politicians stand up in front of journalists and attempt to tell jokes. Except for the one that had Stephen Colbert, these political correspondents dinners are generally cringe worthy and forgettable. Politicians recite inside jokes about current political controversies. At the White House dinner last May, Obama cracked about his birth certificate and Arizona immigration.
But Weiner’s self-deprecating routine would have felt at home at an open-mic stand up. He quipped about Jewfros and childhood bullying. He had a multimedia presentation and talked about his Twitter account. Clips of pundits and politicians yelling at each other on news programs has always been a forte of the Daily Show. Weiner made a roll using only himself.
Anthony Weiner has emerged as one of the country’s most prominent amateur comedians. He grabs our attention not just for being funny, but angry funny. And liberal. With his bursts of outrage on Fox News and on the congressional floor, and with his sarcastic rejoinders, he has carved out a comic sensibility somewhere between Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and Lewis Black. In the process, he has gained visibility and prominence he could never have achieved through legislation. In media-driven politics, visibility is power, and he is joking his way to the top. It is not too hard to imagine other politicians following his lead (Rand Paul may be interested). In the future, it could well be that the politician who tells the most jokes wins. Considering the other trends in politics, that may be the best of all possible futures.
(As a short aside, while Weiner is easy to like, just whatever you do, don’t elect him mayor of New York, because he’ll take away our bike lanes.)
The significance of Weiner’s rise (heh) is not in the content of his comic routine but in the lesson he can teach to the political comedians and the news media that fawn over him. This lesson is especially urgent in light of the recent NPR funding fight, which Weiner lampooned in his floor speech lament for Car Talk’s Click and Clack last week. As a politician Weiner uses comedy to express strong opinions. He doesn’t water down his argument in the name of balance or objectivity. And yet he’s a hit.
Compare Weiner’s rants against the excesses of his political opponents with his former roommate Jon Stewart’s unconvincing attempt at “on the other hand” balance in the run-up to the Rally to Restore Sanity. Stewart’s tortured equivalency between right-wing extremists and the left’s vocal moderates was an attempt to please everyone, but it only drew criticism. Weiner is more opinionated, and more passionate, than almost any professional political comedian I can think of. When politicians are more outspoken than comedians, it means we are living in weird times.
Politicians over the last decade have grown fond of the charge of media bias. Democrats see it in Fox News; Republicans see it in every single other place. They use the accusation of bias to frighten and silence. To intimidate. Yet the politicians themselves are never biased. They’re convinced what they have are beliefs. Comedians — and journalists too — need to stop confusing beliefs with bias. They need to take stands on issues. They need to find their voice. If the media shuts them out, they should become politicians. Not for the politics. To help their comedy career.
Or I don’t know. On the other hand, maybe that’s the worst idea ever.
Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.