Political comedians feast on conventional targets

Send in the clowns! No, not the politicians, the political comedians.

Like Olympic athletes, “We have a career every four years for a month,” said satirist Will Durst, who has been skewering liberals and conservatives through many administrations. “I am in pig heaven.”

This week, he's in St. Paul, Minn., at the Republican National Convention. Last week, I caught up with the San Francisco-based Durst – who I've known since the Clinton years – in Denver, where it was the Democrats' turn.

He was blogging for The Progressive magazine (www.progressive.org) and joining kindred souls in “Breaking Convention with Scott Blakeman: A Liberal Dose of Political Humor,” which also has moved to St. Paul. With comedy, interviews and song, the show offered a break from serious politicking.

When New Yorker Blakeman took the stage of the Bug Theater – trimmed in what looked like red, white and blue bunting left over from the Pepsi Center – he was obviously conflicted. The self-described “Jewish, liberal political comedian” was as anxious for “change” as the buttons on Democratic delegates' chest.

Nonetheless, he said, he was sorry to see the coming end of the administration of George W. Bush, who “exists just for comedians.” Blakeman noted the president's approval ratings are down to 29, “not even percent – just 29.”

Bush, said Durst, “is like if Reagan and Quayle had a kid.”

Unlike a long line of political wits, from Will Rogers to Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory, the comics onstage were presented with an opportunity and a dilemma, how to make fun of the first African American presidential nominee.

Each tried a different approach.

Writer-comedian John Marshall, also out of New York, placed the generationally compatible Illinois senator squarely in the 1980s, a Chicago Brat Packer. “His life plays like one big John Hughes movie,” he said – “Barack Obama's Day Off,” with John McCain as the cranky, old principal.

Is race in the race fair game?

It's like an “ugly baby,” said Durst. “You're allowed to notice it, but you're not allowed to talk about it.”

He dove right in, though.

To the question of whether Obama is black enough, Durst said, as the designated white guy for the evening, “we don't make those distinctions.” In America, he said, “you're considered black if you play too close attention to the NBA playoffs.”

While their approach differed, the comedians agreed that making fun of the status quo is what they do.

As Blakeman said, “Our job is to make people laugh.”

With politicians as foils, they will never run out of material.