The vice president's stiff comedy

Al Gore's problem is not that he lacks a sense of humor -- he's just not showing it.


Daniel Kurtzman
November 29, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

The wooden jokes about Al Gore were just reaching their peak in 1994 when
two aides, wearing hard hats and jumpsuits, loaded the vice president onto a
dolly and wheeled him onstage at the annual Gridiron Club dinner. As they
propped him up next to the lectern and the emcee signed for him, the crowd
at the Fourth Estate's annual talent show convulsed in laughter.

A perfectly rigid Gore just stood there, barely blinking -- for nearly a minute.

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By all accounts, it was an outstanding comic achievement. It was also a
rare glimpse of a different side of Al Gore. "Bore no more," the Washington
Post declared in a gushing review. While that may have proved wishful
thinking, here's a little-known fact about the man consistently derided as
America's most boring public servant: He has a wicked sense of humor.

The public has long known Gore as the stoic and wooden butt of late-night television
gab -- a man who has occasionally busted out with some good self-deprecating
jokes, but otherwise has succeeded in lulling the country to sleep over the
better part of the last decade. There is another Al Gore, however, who bears
surprisingly little resemblance to that caricature: a man who, in private,
is disarmingly loose and funny, blindingly quick and given to spontaneous
mischief-making.

It is a side of Gore that few have seen. But as he runs an uphill race for
the presidency, as much against his own image as against anyone else, it is
a side his advisors desperately hope he learns to project.

The public has seen flashes of Gore's wry humor over the years, most notably
during his 1993 appearance on the "Late Show with David Letterman."

He went for rim-shot zingers, addressed Letterman at one point as "pinhead" and
brought along his own Top 10 list citing the good things about being vice
president. Among them: "If you close your left eye, the seal on the podium
reads: 'President of the United States.'"

One of his better recent performances, which aides insist he winged, came
earlier this month on MSNBC's "Imus in the Morning" show. Taking a jab at Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who had recently flunked a foreign-policy pop quiz from a reporter, Gore dropped name after name of obscure foreign leaders with deadpan bravura.

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"He has a good sense of timing," said Elaine Kamarck, Gore's chief domestic
policy advisor. "For somebody who's reputedly not a good speaker, it's
surprising what a sort of expert comedian he is."

But the truly vintage moments have occurred off camera. That's where Gore's zany tendencies, dry wit and appreciation of the absurd have truly shone, according to current and former staff members and advisors.

Take his 1992 campaign plane -- the "flying zoo," as one reporter described
it. Then-Sen. Gore, trying his hand at a time-honored campaign sport,
would sit at the back of the plane and roll oranges up the aisle during
takeoff to try to hit the crew's door. He also proved an expert "aisle
surfer" -- standing on a plastic tray during takeoff and using the plane's
thrust to propel him past rows of cheering staff members and reporters.

Although the mood is considerably more staid these days aboard Air Force Two, Gore still occasionally cuts loose. Earlier this year, during a trip to South Africa, he took to the aisle to learn the steps to the "Booty Call" after a reporter convinced him he needed to abandon his tired Macarena bit in favor of a hipper dance.

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The veep's playful antics are particularly legendary among staff members. On
one flight home after a trip to the former Soviet Union, Gore ambled back
through the staff section and came across his national security advisor,
Leon Fuerth, fast asleep against a window. Sensing a photo op not to be
missed, he sat down beside him and launched into an animated discussion of
U.S. policy toward Russia. Gore leaned into him and grew increasingly
demonstrative as Fuerth remained slumped down, totally oblivious to the
tongue-lashing, the photographer and the circle of giggling staff members
who had gathered around. According to his aides, Gore is notorious for such
stunts -- and usually makes sure his unsuspecting target receives a copy of the photo.

Many a staffer has also fallen victim to one of Gore's favorite bits of
chicanery: the deadpan dressing-down. One morning during the 1992 campaign,
then-deputy press secretary Steve Silverman stumbled onto the plane with a
deadly hangover after a night of carousing in New Orleans' French Quarter.
Having already thrown up in the press van, he buried himself in his seat,
only to be jostled awake by Gore shortly after takeoff. Gore, stern-faced
and all business, said he was confused about the Iran-Contra chronology and
asked him to reconstruct it for him in a memorandum before their next stop. The aide wallowed in a moment of pale-faced terror before Gore walked back to his seat -- and let out a hearty laugh.

Afterward, Gore proudly sported a button reading, "I was there when Silverman blew -- New Orleans '92."

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Like any seasoned prankster, Gore simply picks his moments. On his last day
traveling with the vice president earlier this year, John Chitwood, Gore's personal physician,
received an urgent page: medical emergency. He grabbed his
bag and darted to the vice president's suite, where he found Gore holding
what appeared to be a badly bleeding hand. He immediately put a towel to it,
only to discover that Gore had stuck his arm into a bowl of salsa.

Much of Gore's humor is purely situational. Some of it just rings funnier
because he is the vice president of the United States. "He has an awareness
of that and can play off of that," noted a former aide. Often what cracks
people up is quite subtle -- a facial expression, a raised eyebrow, an
inflection, an aside. Or it will be a playful gesture, like ordering the
lights of his motorcade dimmed in honor of Elvis while driving past
Graceland. Or stopping short while walking in front of over-aggressive
Secret Service agents, causing them to barrel into him.

"He is someone that can find the humor in something faster than almost
anyone else," said Marla Romash, the former Gore communications director who is now
a consultant with the campaign. Sometimes, she said, she felt as though
she had another older brother, the way he would tease her and "make me laugh to
the point of tears."

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Journalists covering Gore have received their own ribbings. Earlier this
month, the vice president pulled a fast one on reporters who had been badgering his press
secretary about the Palm Pilot Gore keeps clipped to his belt. When Ceci
Connolly of the Washington Post asked him about it during a briefing, Gore
obligingly revealed the contents of his programmed "to do" list. A file
titled "press manipulation strategy" included such as items as lunch with
Brill's Content concerning Connolly and asking the FBI to investigate
Connolly's pilfering of Gore campaign literature. Gore, quite pleased with
himself, giddily exchanged high-fives with two of his aides later, saying,
"We got 'em."

Around the president, Gore has skillfully used humor to lighten up the mood
as well. As George Stephanopoulos recounted in his book, "All Too Human,"
the Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt saga used to be one of Gore's favorite running gags. For weeks, he would begin Oval Office briefings with a detailed update on Bobbitt's surgical condition.

Presidential advisor Paul Begala called Gore's dry wit "a really rare gift because it deflates egos, it eases tension. In a very deadpan, exaggerated, comic sort of way," Begala said, "he'll
make fun of the president or of other big-shots by sort of pretending to be
an absolute yes man: 'That's a great idea. We should definitely do that.
Why stop there?' It's a kind of humor that requires a deep reservoir of
self-confidence, a sense of real familiarity with your colleagues ... and
obviously high intellect to be able to turn it around."

At the same time, the vice president is not above a little bathroom humor.
Asked to recount his own favorite comedic moment, he told aides to tell this
reporter about one particular morning when he was in the shower. It was
around the time he was starting to lose his hair, and he called out to
Tipper to tell her he really liked her new shampoo. He said it was great
stuff, felt "really tingly." Horror washed over her face as he poked his
lathered head out from behind the curtain and she saw what he was holding: a
bottle of Nair hair-removing lotion.

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So if the veep is so loose and funny, why can't he show it to the public?

Gore himself has offered a few explanations in recent months. He has
acknowledged having learned a formal public manner from his father's
approach to politics. And he has also blamed his stiffness on the trappings of the vice presidency -- the process of having to perform "an internal vet" each time he speaks to make sure he's in step with the president and administration policy.

Asked by Newsweek earlier this year to identify the most significant thing
the public has not realized about him, Gore pointed to the importance he
places on humor.

"It helps almost everything in life to be able to laugh at the absurd parts
of it or the ironic parts of it, and I do that a lot," Gore said. "That doesn't come through as much in public as it does in private."

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"Maybe," he added, "[that's] because a lot of the humor is edgy and more easily
enjoyed in private, when people are not dissecting every potential political
meaning."

As he seeks to break free of the wooden caricature, his advisors have been
urging him to loosen up on the stump, partly by showcasing his underutilized
sense of humor and bringing his back-of-the-plane persona into plainer view.
Gone, however, are the self-deprecating stiff jokes that, for too long, only
served to reinforce that image. The new, off-the-cuff Al Gore, dressed in
khakis and cowboy boots, has been angling for more spontaneity.

So far, that has met with mixed results. The man who really wants to connect
has been depicted by some scribes lately as "overcaffeinated," a victim of
"vigor mortis," and still prone to lapse into wonkery. But it appears to
have played well among many voters in New Hampshire and Iowa, who say the
real-life Al Gore is a lot funnier and livelier than they imagined.

As Gore himself likes to quip, "I benefit from low expectations."

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Daniel Kurtzman

Daniel Kurtzman is a Washington writer.

MORE FROM Daniel Kurtzman

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