Seriously, Bob Taking issues with humor lands comic on Larry King Inauguration 1993

January 20, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Staff Writer

Bob Somerby is a comedian, a funny guy. He makes people laugh for a living. So when you ask him what he wants to do with his life, this is his answer:

Policy work -- something in, say, education reform, which is one of his favorite issues. Maybe work for a political candidate. Maybe, he says, "help shape the public debate."

Laugh -- how could you not? No wonder that at one Washington club he works, the staff calls him "Serious Bob."

No, Serious Bob is obsessed with the issues, and he can't help it. He can't do the standard comedy-club shticks about lousy airplane food and how-stoned-did-we-get-at-college. To get people laughing, he'll talk about Ross Perot or the Russian elections. Two mornings a week, he does commentaries on WBAL radio, where he does bits like the following one from yesterday's show:

"We're hearing a lot these days about how President-elect Clinton might be, shall we say, backtracking on some of his campaign promises," says Dave Durian, the WBAL morning show host and Mr. Somerby's straight man.

"That's right, Dave, but what did you expect?" Mr. Somerby responds. "I mean, the guy did campaign on the idea of change. We just didn't think he'd be changing his mind before he was inaugurated."

Or last Friday's show: "I saw in the newspaper where one of Clinton's aides said the president-elect had been working on his inaugural speech since he was 15. Clinton might be the only person who ever got in trouble writing his inaugural address in French class."

That's Bob Somerby's idea of a good joke -- topical, and at least a little bit substantive. He's done enough of them in the past few years to make a good living on the comedy club circuit and on

cable television. And tonight, he's got a plum job: a half-hour on Larry King's special Inauguration Day radio show, (WBAL 1090-AM) live from the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. Mr. Somerby is to come on at 12:30 a.m. (actually Thursday morning) and is scheduled to be the only comedian -- unless, he notes drily, "I get bumped because Amy Carter finally decides to come clean and reveal all."

Late last week, Bob Somerby was still mulling his good fortune. "It's a great opportunity -- it just baffles me that I got such a good spot," he said over lunch at a downtown restaurant, not far from his Bolton Hill apartment.

Serious Bob is serious, he readily acknowledges, and he looks it: Tall, bearded and balding at 45, he looks like a somber, elongated Dabney Coleman. When he gets off a one-liner, it's often so understated it can slip right past the listener. Yes, he was voted the wittiest student by the Class of '65 of Aragon High School in San Mateo, Calif. But he underplays everything, especially the fact that his college roommate was Al Gore (it's true, and more on that later).

"Bob's a real quiet, unassuming guy, but his brain is whirring all the time," Mr. Durian says. "He does topical humor, but I don't recall us ever getting a negative phone call about Bob. I think that's because he doesn't go for the cheap, easy laugh." But he's still funny -- enough to make appearances on Showtime and HBO comedy shows and even sell a few jokes ("very few," he stresses) to Jay Leno and the "Tonight Show." He's carved out a niche as one of the best comedians doing topical stuff -- real inside-the-Beltway political humor -- and now he gets a gig on the King show on the biggest political day of the year. Not bad for a former Baltimore schoolteacher who didn't even tell his first joke on stage until he was 35.

That was 10 years ago. Mr. Somerby had decided after a decade of teaching fifth grade in city public schools that, as much as he liked the kids and the idea of teaching, he didn't care for the realities of the profession.

He had been a philosophy major at Harvard who turned to teaching after graduating in 1969 partly because he would get a draft deferment if he taught in an urban area, he says. But when he began casting around for something else to do, he turned to the unlikely profession of telling jokes for a living.

Although comedy clubs in the early '80s were becoming the happening thing and luring crowds of hip young patrons, Mr. Somerby's first few years were hardly auspicious. From the beginning, he hated most of the material he'd hear on stage.

"I mean, I'd see 26-year-olds up there doing bits on how bad their wives' cooking was," he says, rolling his eyes.

He also had the usual false starts of a novice comedian, owing to weak material and an awkward stage presence.

"In Bob's early days as a comedian, it was almost painful to watch him -- he was so uncomfortable on stage," says Anita Fletcher, president of the Baltimore-based Comedy Club Inc., who has booked Mr. Somerby at several clubs in the past 10 years. "It was largely because he hadn't found himself. He was always uncomfortable doing what other comedians do. . . . Today, though, he's one of the best comedians we book. People love him because he's different."

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