For a living, Bob Somerby tells jokes. For a friend, he'll refrain. In this case, the friend is U.S. Sen. Al Gore. Somerby would rather tell the joke on himself.
The two were roommates for four years at Harvard. Gore was the son of a U.S. senator, so naturally he drifted into the vice presidential candidate business. Somerby was a philosophy major, so naturally he became a stand-up comedian. It helped that he was a Baltimore school teacher in between.
"A campaign slogan?" Somerby says, sitting in his Bolton Street home minutes after last week's big political announcement was made. "How about: 'Vote for Gore. He Was Bob Somerby's Roommate.' "
It's a half-hearted jab from a man with his sense of humor in neutral. Affection gets in the way of a quick joke, but so does a philosophy of comedy: Avoid the cheap shots.
Cheap shots, we'll get to in a moment.
But first, Somerby finds an old theatrical handbill from college days. It's a remnant of the time he and his roommates went over to Wellesley College and put on a little show for the young ladies there.
Somerby played the impresario introducing various acts. Another roommate, an aspiring young actor named Tommy Lee Jones who later made a name for himself in movies, did a Shakespearean oration.
Al Gore played a phony elixir remedy salesman.
No political jokes, please.
"What worries me," says Somerby, who was an usher at the wedding of Al and Tipper Gore, "is reporters who will call wanting The Stupid Story. You know, 'You knew him in college. Tell us something goofy.' "
"It's such a horrible way we approach politics now, trying to find a reason to eliminate someone on the basis of what they did when they were 19. Al was a great guy in college, and he's maintained his basic decency. In politics today, we look for craziness. But Al's just a normal guy."
This is a blessing for the Democrats, maybe, but not for professional comics who make a living on the personal quirks of political figures. This includes Somerby.
He performs stand-up comedy in clubs around the country, does humorous commentaries Tuesday and Friday mornings on WBAL radio and five mornings a week for Washington-area WTEM radio. He writes jokes for the Fox Network's "Comic Strip Live," as well as for other stand-up comics.
Politicians are a mother lode of material. Dan Quayle alone has kept many in business. (Naturally, the possibility of another campaign slogan arises: "Vote for Al Gore. Because He's Not Dan Quayle.")
"Actually, I don't do much on Quayle," says Somerby. "He's almost too easy. I mean, why did they send him to that spelling bee? What was the headline they were after: 'Vice President Doesn't Mess Up Third-Grade Spelling Bee'?"
He lays off certain stuff. When most comics were jumping on Bill Clinton over the Gennifer Flowers story in The Star, Somerby took a step back and thought about cheap shots.
"I thought the jokes were stupid," he says. "As a joke writer, I had a hard time. When you do political jokes, you have to assume a certain common point of view. With Clinton, my view was: Isn't this whole thing a little crazy?
"I mean, what it says is that our elections are directed by the editorial positions of The Star.
"I'll joke about Clinton, but I'll joke about his platform. But as long as he's being pilloried for the dumb sexual stuff, I tend to stay away. It's an election, not a sex comedy."
But here's Somerby on a few other politicians:
On Ross Perot: "He said he would take 60 days off to work on the issues. I think the timing was right. You'd hate to think the guy could actually get himself elected and then have to pull an all-nighter on Election Eve."
On George Bush: "The environmental president? At least he gets credit for recycling his slogans. He wouldn't sign the treaty on greenhouse emissions. He thought it sounded too much like 'Read My Lips: No New Gases.' "
His view of Al Gore tends to be non-comic.
"I guess my best political memory," says Somerby, "is election night
in '68. Al and I were the last two staying up. Nixon was ahead, but Humphrey was closing fast. We were up till 5 in the morning.
"I didn't know Al was interested in a political career back then. In those days, career thinking wasn't your first option. Vietnam was. Every political discussion involved Vietnam. Gore's father, of course, was one of the first people on Capitol Hill to come out against the war, and it cost him his seat.
"I remember thinking at the time: What a great legacy, someone willing to lose for a principle."
Actually, the Democrats have gotten a little too good at such things. When Somerby heard the news about Clinton picking Gore as his running mate, he felt a rush of memories -- and not a rush of one-liners.
"What if Gore called," Somerby is asked now, "and said, 'Bob, I want you in my Cabinet. I need a Secretary of Comedy.' "
"Of course," says Somerby with proper comic irony, "when the vice president calls, you have to listen . . ."
It's as close as he gets to a little joke. Right now, his instinct is just pride.