At this writing, Bob Somerby is on the edge of his seat. He still isn't sure whether he was college roommates with a historical footnote or with the next president of the United States. "Do I know Franklin Roosevelt?" Somerby wonders aloud, by phone from his home in Baltimore. "Or do I know Michael Dukakis? We're about to find out."
If Al Gore doesn't ultimately prevail in his bid to be prez, it won't be for lack of support from the old school ties. Somerby, who makes his Valley debut this weekend at the Tempe Improv, sees Gore a couple of times a year and has done "some joke writing for the campaign, so I've stayed in touch that way."
Somerby's part of what he calls "the Comedy Cabinet," the mirthsmiths who help the veep navigate situations, like talk shows or roasts, in which he's supposed to show his lighter side. That's their job -- to make Al Gore funny, and to make him funny on purpose. "I'm Secretary of Agriculture in the Comedy Cabinet," remarks Somerby, adding, with just the slightest tinge of peer envy, "Al Franken is Secretary of State."
When he's not trying to use comedy to affect the course of Western civilization, Somerby divides his time between standup gigs and press criticism. Most of his work centers on Washington, D.C., so road trips like the Tempe show have become increasingly rare for him. "I've worked in comedy clubs all over the country, but I don't do clubs very much any more."
He doesn't have to; he finds an abundance of corporate and other private conclaves right in the nation's capital willing to engage the services of a trenchant court jester. "D.C. is the meeting capital of the world; there's 300 meetings a year. It starts with Mark Russell and works its way down from there."
More of his time in recent years has been devoted to The Daily Howler, the Web site he edits, in which, amidst copious classical allusions, the logic and motives of the likes of George Will and other op-ed columnists are dismantled. This is not the political japery of Leno or Letterman, however, or even of P.J. O'Rourke. "It's lightly humorous around the edges," says Somerby, "but it's basically straight press criticism." Nonetheless, Somerby has appeared four times on Politically Incorrect, and has made numerous other TV appearances.
At the moment, Somerby is dubious of his old pal's chances of becoming the new tenant at 1600 Pennsylvania. "I somehow don't believe they're going to let him win, even though, if they go back and re-count those votes, he's going to go ahead. It's too bad, because he's a really good guy. I hope he wins, but he's gonna have a terrible four years if he does. There's gonna be a sense that he stole the election."
Even if standup is now on his back burner, Somerby still knows how to flash a bit of show-biz tease when he needs to. Describing his current relations with Gore, he says, "I see him a couple of times a year. He comes to the occasional comedy show. If he loses, he might have time to come to Tempe."