Laughing matters

Posted: Mar 16, 2006 12:05 AM

Years ago, when I left politics, I decided to take up a hobby. Stand-up comedy. No kidding.

The only funny part of this story is that I used to think politics was tough business! Try living the life of a traveling comedian.

Believe it or not, I even made it to Las Vegas -- where, as the saying goes, what happens, stays. Let's hope so. Because I try to be taken seriously, I've filed that little episode in my life as "hobbies best forgotten."

Recently, however, I had the duty, job or honor -- whatever one might call it -- of serving as emcee for a gathering of media and political leaders. It was meant to be a night of poking fun, yet I felt certain when it ended that I had offended or hurt someone with my rather brutal sense of humor. It wouldn't be the first time.

Yes, from time to time on a television program or in my column, I've made comments that might have been taken the wrong way. In fact, I specifically recall having Bill Maher toss me an odd question about transgender illegal immigrants one time on his ABC-TV show "Politically Incorrect." My answer apparently didn't make much sense, nor was it funny. For once, Bill was merciful, or perhaps just befuddled, and didn't push the issue.

In reality, it's hard trying to be funny or spontaneous without the risk of someone getting mad.

Now comes the revelation that NBC's "Tonight Show" host, Jay Leno, actually calls, on occasion, persons who have been offended by one of his monologue jokes, and -- imagine, in this day and age -- apologizes. The story only confirms what I assumed for years: Leno is a first-rate comic, entertainer, interviewer and, most of all, human being.

If he has some hidden political agenda, I've never been able to discern it. If he has a massive ego, he hides it better than just about any other star. His show is always something we can look forward to, to help relieve the stress of politics and world events.

Leno responded to one viewer's complaint about a joke that compared Dick Cheney's notorious hunting accident to a shooting in 2003 outside the Los Angeles courthouse. In response to the agitated viewer, Leno didn't equivocate. Instead, he simply said he was sorry it came across as offensive.

That act speaks volumes about Jay Leno's good nature. It's a lesson that others in the public eye -- particularly political leaders -- should take to heart.

It seems to me that in recent years, the new brands of political leaders emerging at virtually every level of government are becoming increasingly full of themselves. They are too busy to talk to anyone, unless it's to ask for money; too set with their "principles" to consider listening to the other side; and far too serious to take a joke or make one.

There are exceptions, of course. Sen. John McCain did a hilarious self-parody, hawking his own renditions of Barbara Streisand's greatest hits. To describe the bit would not do it justice. But suffice to say, McCain showed not only a great sense of humor, but also courage -- for it's true that if Babs probably has the political sense of a goat, then McCain has the pipes of one.

It isn't just political leaders who can benefit from a sense of humor, including the critical ability to laugh at one's own follies. Self-righteous, "keepers-of-the-gate" journalists who pass judgment on public figures could lighten up a bit, too.

And everybody, when appropriate, should at least occasionally be willing to say, "I'm sorry." Would it kill today's "power politicians" to get their rear ends off their shoulders and admit, even once, that they've made a mistake?

What the world needs are many, many more Jay Lenos, and not just on late-night TV. Imagine a politician or reporter who, a la Leno, could joke about his own superabundant chin and feel comfortable enough about himself to include that "defect" as part and parcel of a striking appearance.

And we could use elected officials and pundits who might take the time to pick up a phone and call an everyday man or woman they feel concerned about.

I know the man's a star and likely has his off days. But in a world that seems filled with pessimism, sanctimony and self-righteousness, Jay Leno earns my vote for a truly inspiring public figure. No offense, Dave Letterman -- I like you, too.