The Prime Minister of Comedy

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

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.

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