When I first heard that Arlen Specter was going to hit the stand-up comedy circuit, I was pretty excited. If nothing else, such a decision from an ex-Senator shows cojones, a commodity that is in distressingly short supply among most of those associated with public life. Beyond that, Specter is in a valuable position to offer sharp commentary about how our government is run. After spending thirty years as one of the Senate's leading moderates, as well as serving as District Attorney for Philadelphia and assistant counsel on the Warren Commission, his vast personal experience has given him an authority on politics and politicians that even his fiercest detractors can't dispute. While it's unlikely that this alone could have ever been enough to put him in the same league as today's leading comic luminaries -- it takes deep artistic skill to be a Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Trey Parker, or Matt Stone, to say nothing of joining the ranks of American satiric legends like Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, Will Rogers, and Groucho Marx -- it could have at least made his act a particularly insightful one.
Then I saw his routine.
The first word that comes to mind is "sad." Specter isn't being the elder statesman whose jocular wisdom enlightens his listeners as it makes them laugh. Hell, he isn't even being the charismatic octogenerian whose deficits in edginess are at least offset by a certain degree of grandfatherly charm (although in fairness, charm was the last quality ever associated with the man nicknamed "Snarlin' Arlen"). Instead he comes across as a dirty old man, telling sketchy jokes that build up to predictable punchlines and, even worse, reveal absolutely nothing interesting about their targets.
Take this jab at Bill Clinton: "I called Clinton up on his 65th birthday and I said, 'Bill, congratulations on being 65. How do you feel?' He said, 'I feel like a teenager. The problem is, I can't find one.'"
First, the set up doesn't quite work there, since "How do you feel?" is hard to misinterpret as "What do you feel like doing?" (a miscommunication central to the joke's payoff). There is also the problem of the joke being painfully unfunny, like a riff Carlos Mencia might have stolen from one of Jay Leno's lesser monologues. Most significant of all, though, is the fact that it utterly wastes Specter's inside knowledge of Clinton, instead using him as an interchangeable punchline. Is there anything about that quip that is specific to President Clinton, as opposed to any celebrity with a reputation for licentiousness? If you replaced the name (and possibly age), couldn't you use that exact same crack about Hugh Hefner or Charlie Sheen or David Letterman or Tiger Woods?
Here is another example, this time at the expense of Herman Cain: "What people don't know is that Cain had a longstanding problem since he was an adolescent: No matter how hard his teachers tried, they couldn't persuade Herman Cain that 'harass' was one word."
Again, along with being utterly devoid of comic merit, this joke simply takes low-hanging fruit -- a characteristic popularly associated with Herman Cain's image -- and uses it for an insulting pun that could apply to any famous figure accused of sexual harassment. Considering that Arlen Specter served in Congress at the same time that Cain (the self-proclaimed "outsider") was giving advice and assistace to Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, it seems like a terrible waste for him to avoid availing himself of that kind of insider knowledge in the name of generic one-liners.
Two final samples, one on Chris Christie and the other about the late Ted Kennedy: "In the last hurricane, Christie's seashore house was totally demolished. He didn't mind too much that the house was destroyed, but he was really very upset that it destroyed his entire library - both books. And he wasn't finished coloring them."
"So I was sitting there enjoying the [Senate gym] hot tub when in comes my colleague Ted Kennedy, in his birthday suit. 285 pounds. Teddy flops into the hot tub like a walrus. You know the story of rising tide lifts all ships? Well my head hit the ceiling."
It's bad enough that these jokes, like their predecessors, could apply to any celebrity whose reputation is frequently ridiculed (in this case for stupidity or obesity). What makes them worse, though, is that he actually gets the public images wrong for these two figures. Few people immediately associate Chris Christie with stupidity or Ted Kennedy with corpulence; if anything, much richer and more obvious material can be mined from the former Massachusetts Senator's reputation for drunkenness and womanizing (to say nothing of Chappaquiddick), while the New Jersey Governor is the superior target for fat jokes. Indeed, Christie himself had a better quip about his weight than anything Specter has thought up, once remarking that his size can be taken as a desire to keep Dunkin Donuts employees working during the recession.
Even if Specter's jokes hadn't been more substantive, that doesn't mean they couldn't have been funny. History offers plenty of examples of great political humor based solely on wit instead of experience-based insight, including: President Calvin Coolidge's legendary retort to author Dorothy Parker when she bet she could make the famously reticent president utter at least three words ("You lose."); Sir Winston Churchill's response to Lady Astor when she said she'd poison his tea if he was her husband ("If you were my wife, I'd drink it."); President John Kennedy's answer to a child's question about how he become a war hero ("It was absolutely involuntary. They sunk my boat."); and Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson's challenge to the right-wing Republicans who kept smearing him during his 1952 presidential campaign ("I have been thinking that I would make a proposition to my Republican friends - that if they will stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them."). That said, because those politicians were merely reacting to spur of the moment circumstances imposed upon them rather than designing entire comic routines, it makes sense that they weren't tapping into the full breadth of their career experiences for material. Because Specter presumably spent time planning his jokes, his failure to do this is more than a crime against quality comedy. It is a squandered opportunity.
Maybe he should remember the humorous insult from history that I consider to be my personal favorite, one directed at President Chester Arthur from a mysterious female friend named Julia Sands: "What is there to admire in mediocrity? Why do you take such comfort in half measures? Does it never strike you that there must be back of them only half a mind - a certain half-heartedness - in fact, only half a man? Why do you not do what you do with your whole soul? Or have you only half of one?"