Bipartisan Comedy: Politicians and Pundits Let Loose at Charity Fundraiser

Funniest Celebrity in Washington Austan GoolsbeeABC News
Politicians took a break from the serious issues of the day to compete in the "Funniest Celebrity in Washington" contest on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009. Senior White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee, who won the contest, probably elicited the most audience laughter in his unusual stand-up routine.

It was a night of bipartisan comedy.

Politicians, pundits and journalists took a break from the serious issues of the day to let their creative, comedic juices flow in the annual Funniest Celebrity in Washington contest Wednesday. The politically star-studded event is somewhat of a staple in the nation's capital. The fundraiser is now in its 16th year and boasts many of the political powerhouses of comedy.

Austan Goolsbee took home this year's top award for his unique stand-up routine. The White House economic adviser added subtle comedic nuances -- by lowering his voice -- to a monologue that could have, otherwise, passed for a regular speech.

Speaking of the Obamas' trip this week to Copenhagen, Denmark, to promote Chicago for the 2016 Olympic games, Goolsbee quipped, "I think they're bringing the governors, if the parole board says it's OK."

As for bank executives who received federal bailout money, he said, "I think they learned some lessons from what just happened, like spend your bonuses quickly."

The 11 contestants who gathered at the Improv didn't spare anyone and took jabs at leaders on both sides of the political aisle. But the favorite subject of the night was, undoubtedly, Sarah Palin.

"I promised to speak 10 minutes tonight but, in honor of Sarah Palin, I'm going to do half of that and quit," Democratic California Rep. Jackie Speier said as she opened her monologue, referring to Palin's stepping down as Alaska governor this year.

Master of ceremonies Baratunde Thurston even had suggestions for a title for the former GOP vice presidential candidate's forthcoming book.

"If at first you don't succeed, say you did and then quit," the comedian said. Or, "Turning 15 minutes of fame into forever."

Other officials were not spared either.

"My rule is never drink water. Dick Cheney tortures with it," joked Grover Norquist, president of the conservative advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform.

It was Norquist who convinced Joe Wurzelbacher, better known as "Joe the Plumber," to take part in the night of comedy. "This will be fun," a calm Wurzelbacher told ABC News before the show.

The former plumber, who was put in the national spotlight after he asked President Barack Obama a question during the presidential campaign last year, said he is trying to use his 15 minutes of fame to do some good, like help raise money for StandUp for Kids, which the event was sponsoring.

It's not often that both Democrats and Republicans can come together and go at each other -- and themselves -- with such ease. Event founder and organizer Richard Siegel said that's the mission of the event, and his goal this year was to offer a greater variety of stand-up acts.

"We have someone from every walk of life," Siegel said. "I'm trying to promote bipartisanship."

Siegel's attempt at bipartisan comedy may have worked at the comedy club where the event was held, but its future outside the venue seems shaky.

"It's a joke," Wurzelbacher said of bipartisanship. "It's a made up word to appease the general masses."

Night of Political Comedy

Many pundits and politicians have taken to the stage and let loose at this comedy event, from Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, to liberal blogger Ariana Huffington.

The contestants are judged based on their delivery, presentation, content and audience reaction.

This year's stand-up exhibited a variety of creative acts, from impressions to storytelling. And the jokes were not all limited to domestic issues.

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., who won bronze, took a jab at the country's leaders.

Speaking of Abdullah Abdullah, a candidate in Afghanistan's disputed presidential elections, Larsen joked, "The guy is so good, they named him twice."

As for what's the difference between elections in Florida and those in Afghanistan?

"After you vote in Florida, they hang chads. After you vote in Iran, they hang everybody," Larson joked.

From Obama to South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, no one was spared.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award. Nelson is a fiscally conservative Democrat who opposes the idea of the government-run health insurance plan.

"This honor is a lot easier to accept without a public option," he said, accepting the award.

Charity Controversy

Like many other political happenings in Washington, the event also came with its fair share of controversy.

The contest is billed as a fundraiser for charities and nonprofit organizations, and has also been held in San Francisco and Baltimore. But, the Washington Post reported this week, organizers have failed to make any contributions to charities that have been promised the money in the past five years. Most of the money raised was used for putting together the show, according to the report.

Siegel said that's not all true.

"It didn't tell the whole story of what we're doing for charity," Siegel told ABC News, adding that the money has gone to charity most years.

Siegel said his tax-exempt organization tried but wasn't able to raise enough money to allocate the promised money to charities in the past few years. He said the show this year is expected to cost between $30,000 to $40,000, thanks to sponsorships and donations by participants such as local chef Geoff Tracy.

The cost cuts mean the designee this year, StandUp for Kids in Atlanta, should receive funding from the show, Siegel said.