Joe and Me — Brothers in Comedy

TIME's Washington deputy bureau chief Matt Cooper does the Borscht Belt thing with Senator Lieberman and finds that Joe is a pretty funny guy

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I don't claim to know Joe Lieberman well. We've talked maybe 10 or 20 times — interviews on the phone, some rides on the Capitol subway. My home in Washington is near the Georgetown synagogue (there's an oxymoron) that Lieberman attends. When my wife was pregnant, he patted her tummy.

The interesting and worth-mentioning bond we have is comedy. When I'm not working at TIME, I do stand-up comedy on the side. I play clubs in New York City and Washington, D.C. And occasionally I play political gatherings, like a big Washington black-tie dinner earlier this year. In 1998, I performed at the Democratic Leadership Council's retreat in New Orleans. This proved to be a great gig, allowing me entrée to the no-reporters-allowed meeting while giving me the chance to hone my schtick.

Lieberman is the DLC's chairman, and on the agenda that weekend was the Kosher-Cajun brunch sponsored by Lieberman and our host Sen. John Breaux, the aforementioned Cajun. That's where I did my "set." Among my riffs was a Joe Lieberman gag. As you might imagine, there are few clubs where you can do a Lieberman joke and have anyone know what you're talking about.

My schtick? Joe, I said, had a secret: His real name is Joseph Larchmont and he's a WASP from Old Lyme. Why did he parade around as an orthodox Jew, I asked? Because Connecticut's politics were already filled with preppies, either authentic WASPs like the Bushes or near WASPs like the Buckleys. To get ahead in the Nutmeg State, you needed an ethnic angle. This meant that he had to pose as a Jew. After a day of running around in his Jewish pose, complete with Yiddishisms and a rabbinical demeanor, he'd come home each night to his manse, slip on a pair of plaid pants and a kelly blazer and announce: "Jeezus, these people. Gawd, I have to wash my hands.... I mean, they're sooooo pushy. Lovey, could you pour me a Pimm's Cup?" Lieberman's wife, Hadassah, I "revealed" was actually named... Muffy. As a Jew, I figured I had the ethnic entitlement that allowed me to be so irreverent.

I'm not surprised that Lieberman laughed that morning. What politician, especially in a room full of his peers, wouldn't roll with the punches? What struck me is how much he seemed to genuinely enjoy the joke. Whenever I ran into him, he always brought it up. He could have been merely courting a TIME reporter, but my gut told me that he had (A) a genuine sense of humor, (B) secure enough feelings about his Judaism and the place of Jews in the world that he could laugh about it and (C) a healthy lack of pomposity.

All of this would be a mere curiosity except for the fact that much will be made in the coming days about Lieberman's character, how his rectitude is meant to cleanse Gore of Clinton's sins. That may be true, but it shouldn't be lost that the guy is not all piety. That may prove important later if the GOP tries to portray him as sanctimonious.

As it happens, Lieberman is a bit of a comedian himself. In 1998, I won a local charity contest called Washington's Funniest Celebrity, in which assorted pols and pundits did stand-up at a local club. The following year, when I was ineligible to compete again, I helped host the event and did my Lieberman schtick, before a larger audience. The senator still got a kick out of it this time, and the cameras were rolling. And he performed himself, winning the contest with one-liners like "When he spoke in the Senate, Bill Bradley used to be called boring. Now that he's a candidate they say he's comfortable in his own skin." That's not a thigh-slapper, but it's wry and aware. Humor, then, is one more thing Lieberman brings to the ticket. And if he can bring out the oft-mentioned funny side of the private Al Gore, it'll be no small thing.