Telling Sarah Palin jokes at a comedy show in Washington, D.C.’s Adams-Morgan section the night before the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rally last October is like shooting fish in a barrel. With a bazooka. The targets are at point-blank range and hardly worth the trouble, while the audience is ravenous. But before Jeff Kreisler ’95 can nudge the crowd of liberals toward the broader point he wants to make, he tosses them some easy ones.
“We live in a stupid, stupid age of American politics,” he mutters, pacing the stage in a button-down shirt and jeans while sipping a can of Yuengling. “But I’m excited by it. I’ve always been into politics, and I think it’s perfect because even the word ‘politics’ describes what’s going on right now. Politics. Poly-tics. Poly-ticks. Many bloodsuckers.”
OK, that one gets only a titter, and Kreisler, who in addition to doing his own set is acting as emcee for a show that includes fellow alum Adam Ruben ’01, moves on. A couple of chestnuts from the George W. Bush file get the audience going, but just when the people seem to be settling in for a nice, comfortable evening of Republican-bashing, Kreisler turns his fire on disaffected Democrats.
“Remember when everyone had Obamamania?” he asks what, judging from the chatter, is a crowd full of Obamamaniacs. “Once Obama was in office — oh my God.” The greedy look of a true believer comes into his eye as he starts ticking off agenda items on his fingers. “First thing he’s going to do is he’s gonna get us all out of Iraq. Then he’s gonna fix the economy. Then we’re all gonna get our homes back. Then the icebergs will grow back and Princess Diana will riiiiise from the grave!”
Pouting liberals with their messianic hopes, he continues, are “like spoiled 10-year-olds who’ve been begging their parents for a puppy. And they finally got the puppy for Christmas, and they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s so cute! He’s gonna close Guantánamo!’ And 18 months later we’re all ... ” — and here, Kreisler puts on a whiny child’s voice — “Mom, he’s pissing all over financial reform!”
Well, you had to be there. E.B. White once wrote that dissecting a joke is like dissecting a frog: Few people are interested, and the frog dies of it. So, too, with trying to reproduce stand-up on the printed page.
On stage, though, Kreisler is drawing appreciative laughs. He parts company with most other contemporary political comics, from the bitter cynicism of Lewis Black, say, or the smarmy knowingness of Dennis Miller. In his show, he turns serious and sincere.
“I’m a student of history,” he says. “And I love American history — that’s what got me into doing comedy, it’s the idea of the power of words.” One half expects to hear a fife-and-drum corps start playing in the background. “There are three words that make me proud of America. We the people. Those are powerful words, and sometimes it upsets me that the Tea Party stole them, but they’re powerful words and no one owns that idea that we the people have power.”
Then, just before he begins to lose the audience which, after all, came here for laughs rather than a civics lesson, Kreisler pulls them back in: “We used our power when the worldwide economy fell apart, when we the people stood up and said, ‘Hell no, I will not pay for my mortgage!’ ”
Kreisler considers himself a satirist, not a straight stand-up comedian. Over the past decade he has written for outlets ranging from Comedy Central to Reader’s Digest, and for three years he produced a regular column for the financial website TheStreet.com. Today, in addition to his various stage performances, he also blogs on his website, www.jeffkreisler.com.
“It’s either a curse or a good thing about my career,” he says, self-deprecatingly and inaccurately, “that I have a lot of projects that are in various stages of failure.”
He works a variety of venues, from New York comedy clubs to college campuses and even a New Jersey racetrack, doing anywhere from one to four shows in a week. He recently opened for comedian Dick Gregory, and was invited to perform at The Economist’s “The World in 2011” conference. His wife, Anne Teutschel, a performer, casting director, and theater and speech professor at the City University of New York, often helps out on his shows. At his Washington performance, she handled the lights.
A trained lawyer who still maintains his California bar license — for the same reason Tammy Wynette kept her beautician’s license for years after she hit it big: You never know when you might need it to fall back on — Kreisler is able to cobble together enough writing and performing gigs to support himself doing what he wants to do. It is “a self-starter business,” and he constantly must decide whether it’s worthwhile to put time and effort into a new idea that might not pay off. On the other hand, “if you worry too much about something ending up in a paycheck, you’re not going to go with it. So I try to find the time to let myself not worry about what I’m doing and just let it happen.”
Ideas come from many sources. A foot-and-a-half-tall stack of newspapers, many marked up and underlined, and a basketful of old notebooks clutter the Hoboken, N.J., house Kreisler and Teutschel share. He takes walks around the neighborhood to help him think, mourning that the widespread use of hands-free phones means that he is no longer the only person pacing the streets who appears to be talking to himself. He tries to force himself to keep something approximating business hours. Sometimes, though, he just sits and watches the day go by.
Perhaps Kreisler’s greatest success has come from his 2009 book, Get Rich Cheating (HarperCollins), which he has developed into a stage show performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Duke University business school, a few law schools, and several corporate retreats, among other places. A faux wealth-building seminar, Get Rich Cheating takes a satirical look at our obsession with money and willingness to take shortcuts to obtain it. Kreisler describes its tone and style as “Tony Robbins meets Jim Cramer meets Stephen Colbert,” skewering everything and everyone from millionaires who buy their way into the U.S. Senate to Wall Street traders who escape their ruined firms with golden parachutes to CEOs who preach the free-market doctrine while holding their hands out for government bailouts. Among the positive reviews, Penthouse magazine called the book “Catcher in the Rye for evildoers.”
Stand-up routines today are like what Broadway shows used to be: You start on the road and hone the old stuff while trying out new material, experimenting with different combinations and emphases until you find what works and can bring that back to bigger houses and boffo reviews. The night before the Washington show, Kreisler tried untested jokes before about two dozen people at a small club in the West Village. It was a slow Thursday, and by his own admission some of his routine, like the Mormon jokes (“Mormons say they support the sanctity of marriage. Do they think that sanctity means eight?”) flopped. He dropped them. Other bits, however, including the mortgage joke, got a laugh; Kreisler kept them in the show.
Why do political humor when most of the big-time comics seem to get HBO specials doing sex and relationship jokes? “It was just always what I liked to talk about and think about,” Kreisler says. He is careful to keep satire from crossing over into screed. “If there’s something to be made fun of, I make fun of it.” The great divide in American life, he thinks, is not so much between Democrats and Republicans as between haves and have-nots. “You see the influence of money in politics, so I’ve taken those things — money and fairness and the abuse of power — as my framework,” Kreisler insists. “I’ve always been a stand-up-for-the-little-people guy. But I’m very open to anything that’s ridiculous.”
Political humor has a long and honorable history, from Aristophanes to Will Rogers to Bill Maher. But its practitioners face particular challenges. Rip your material from today’s headlines, and you risk it becoming as stale as yesterday’s newspaper. A few iconic figures, like Ted Kennedy and Sarah Palin, may endure as targets, but most others, such as Christine O’Donnell, the Tea Party’s failed Senate candidate in Delaware, already are specks in the national rearview mirror.
If it is to be sharp, Kreisler says, political humor also requires a level of political literacy that an audience might not have. Depending upon where you stand, for example, the views of newly elected Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul on the Federal Reserve might be ripe for mockery, but the room will fall deathly silent if the crowd doesn’t know who Rand Paul is or what the Fed does. That is another reason Kreisler tries to build his humor around larger ideas, peppering them as needed with the politician or scandal of the moment.
And though it may seem obvious, political humor has to be funny — or it’s just another attack ad. “In most comedy clubs,” Kreisler says with a veteran’s jaded eye, “your job is to distract [the patrons] while they buy drinks. So it has to be the joke above all else. I try to always remember that I am an entertainer.”