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The Prime Minister of Comedy 

Barry Weintraub's a joker, he's a voter, he's a Web-page stoker

Wednesday, Nov 22 1995
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Welcome to 'Scampaign '96,' folks," says comedian Barry Weintraub, pacing the Punch Line's brightly lit stage and peering out into the darkness. "It's election eve in San Francisco. We've got about a hundred people in the room, and if that's any indication of the voter turnout tomorrow -- fill in your own punch line."

Weintraub good-naturedly hassles suburbanites and a nice Swedish couple careless enough to sit up front, then fires on the mayoral candidates.

"Willie Brown: How many years was he in the state [Assembly]? Twenty? Thirty? Sixty? Too many. A man who is reputed to have done a lot of good deeds, but apparently takes a commission on each one -- which explains the nice suits. Roberta Achtenberg: apparently a very honest woman who, best as I can tell, can't hold a job. Two years on the supervisors, two years in D.C., 'Fuck it, that's enough time, I'll be mayor; after two years, we'll see what happens.' "

Every inch the equal opportunity offender, the New York transplant then goes after the incumbent: "Frank Jordan, of course ... has all the charisma of a tadpole -- and what a build."

The evening of stand-up is only part of Weintraub's crusade to resurrect Bay Area political humor in the tradition of Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, the Committee, and the Mime Troupe. His brainchild, "Scampaign '96," is a planned series of shows, radio spots, and written commentary, as well as a Web site devoted to politics and social issues. No Seinfeld-ish fabric softener jokes, no I-did-my-cat jokes, and no more dick jokes than absolutely necessary. It's a political fanatic's dream, and Weintraub and company are counting on it being a lot of other people's dream, too.

Weintraub blames the intellectual void on radio and TV programmers who won't include substantial issues in their shows, especially political issues.

"[They'd say] the lowbrow stuff does work; consequently, why put any energy into anything else" more ambitious? He disagrees, citing a caller-packed talk show he co-hosted at KDBK, as well as a recent New York Times article on how the networks' fall lineups are bombing because the programmers finally sank beneath the lowest common denominators of humor.

"We just want to make it safe to talk about real shit. Just because someone is watching Melrose Place doesn't mean they can't comprehend that Newt Gingrich is trying to take away their college loan," says Weintraub.

Back at the Scampaign showcase, Weintraub moves up the political food chain, skewering presidential might-bes: Clinton, Dole, Alexander, Gramm ("the only man on Earth who can make a used-car salesman go, 'Whew. Sleazy' "), Buchanan ("Hey Pat, Hitler called, said turn it down"), Powell, and Gingrich ("Put a straw hat on that guy and black out one tooth: He's Benny Hill, folks"). Then he turns it over to comedy comrades he has gathered for tonight's event: Dennis Gaxi-ola, Sabrina Matthews, David Allen Moss, Will Durst (who has been waving the political humor flag since the early '80s), Sean Murphy, and Johnny Steele.

Durst is particularly funny in his perennial role as San Francisco's Angry Man: "Doesn't it seem like if God wanted us to vote he would have given us candidates? Doesn't it? I think if voting were actually effective, they would have made it illegal by now.

"These militias are quite mad. They think the U.N. is going to invade America. The U.N.! The U.N. couldn't organize a bridal shower, for Christ's sake. Some people see the glass half-full, some people see it half-empty, the militias see the glass as a liberal plot to control our fluids!

"Bob Dole: a man who looks like his hobby is to watch things die. Dole's 72, man -- this is his last shot. Loud noises are beginning to startle him. I think his campaign slogan should be, 'Hey you punks, get off my lawn!' " And later, on the senior senator from North Carolina: "Jesse Helms is now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Finally, someone able to speak to Zhirinovsky on an equal level -- under the rock.

"Two hundred forty-five billion dollars in tax cuts? Because the American people want tax cuts. Well of course they do. The American people want Nickel Beer Night! The American people want to lose weight by eating ice cream! The American people would chew off their own foot if someone told them there was liquid gold in their ankle veins!"

Sean Murphy provides this seasonal note: "We're getting ready to celebrate our most traditional of all American holidays, Thanksgiving. Where we basically celebrate a big feasting of religiously intolerant people; people who got kicked out of fucking Holland -- Holland, ladies and gentlemen, because they couldn't get along with the other children; people who wore belts on their hats. What kind of fashion statement was that, exactly? So in case Jebediah may have had a thought of his own, 'Let's cinch that fucker down one more. Yea, verily, brother!' It was just basically Waco with high-cholesterol foods."

The Scampaign '96 Web site (www.comedyusa.com) is produced by Weintraub and his partners, Web-page designers Frank Leahy and Kris Morrissey. The latter two were already running a mildly activist page called LiberalNet from their computer-stuffed firm, Digital Comet, in the shadow of Telegraph Hill, and felt that Scampaign would be a natural transition from LiberalNet's grass-roots activism to creating a place to laugh about the presidential follies.

As Weintraub said from the Punch Line stage, "We hope to make it a site where people can come for humor and commentary and be entertained and informed throughout the year, because we find that there isn't enough place to do that unless you happen to be a right-wing fan of Rush Limbaugh -- so, everybody from Rush Limbaugh alllllll the way over to the center and then to the left, this is for you. And Rush can come and sign on, and we'll take advantage of it."

He means it. Calling themselves "bleeding-heart capitalists," Weintraub, Leahy, and Morrissey plot to make money off the silent masses who follow the news more closely than just stumbling through the headlines and Doonesbury on the morning train.

Morrissey, hailing from an advertising/marketing background, insists that the Scampaign '96 Web page is a viable advertising sell, hoping that "socially aware commercial advertisers" -- like Ben & Jerry's and Working Assets -- will line up to "be present in a place that already has that cynicism" about politics -- as well as, oddly enough, advertising. "It's access to an audience that will appreciate [the advertiser's] support of that place," she opines.

Still in beta, the page features the Daily Dose, a pithy quote from that day's media which Weintraub phones in daily to Leahy; the Charade, long essays by Weintraub; the Comedy Ministry, free-lanced out to other local humorists; letters from Noah Fillmore (think bagels/Pacific Heights), a Weintraub alter ego whose funny-yet-worshipful letters ask the candidates for photos and political positions; letters to the editor; and the Scampaign poll, which asks readers to rate candidates by which one is capable of telling the biggest lie.

Digital Comet plans to implement the Real Audio program so Web visitors can listen to the comics' acts, a real plus since some acts don't translate well into print. And ultimately, Leahy says, he'd like to have a Web data base set up that would allow browsers to download, say, every comedic reference to Newt Gingrich, whether typed or verbal. (Weintraub declines to discuss how much money he and his partners have put into the crusade: "We're willing to spend money up front in order to create a Web site that will be unique and that will be an entrance into other media.")

The page occasionally taps the guy-humor that has recently been the bane of nightclub comedy, with a doctored photo of Frank Jordan showering with -- chuckle -- Willie Brown and Roberta Achtenberg, as well as a section listing "score hot sex" as a reason for ordering Scampaign buttons and T-shirts (Kris' idea). Asked about this last, Weintraub comments, "I'm not saying we're above [dick jokes] -- we just don't do them as a rule."

Comedian Johnny Steele says he'd like to put together another live Scampaign show for December, with the hopes of getting the format fine-tuned by February's New Hampshire and Iowa caucuses. "It's going to be a little campy," he says. "One gag we'll wind up doing is 'Great Moments in American History.' In one case we're going to go to Colonial America where Rush Limbaugh's great-great-great-great-grandfather is going on about how the Indians are ruining America.

About The Author

Paul D. Kretkowski

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