WASHINGTON — Heard the one about sequestration?
“We had our sequester talk earlier in the week,” Shahryar Rizvi said 90 seconds into his stand-up set, a few hours after getting off work at the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration.
It was Thursday night — Sequester Eve — and Rizvi, a 32-year-old IT project planner who moonlights as a comedian, was at an open-mike night in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, mining the increasing disquiet of his day job for laughs.
“Our head of our division sat us down and told us how many furlough days we’re going to have, what the plan is if it all goes down,” Rizvi said of the looming $85 billion in across-the-board federal budget cuts. “And I was so [ticked] that he did this. ‘Cause he did this during the meeting when we as a division were going to make our ‘Harlem Shake’ video.”
The small crowd in the Topaz Hotel’s basement bar, a few blocks from the White House, erupted in laughter. Rizvi paused a beat, then continued: “Nobody’s going to dance with a keyboard shirtless now.”
Turns out that there’s comedy gold in unpaid leave days and other mandatory cuts — even in federal Washington, where beleaguered bureaucrats, anxious government contractors and ripple-effect worriers are in dire need of a little levity.
“We all get it,” Rizvi said offstage. “You have to be able to make jokes and laugh about this situation we’re in.”
More than 300,000 federal workers live in the Washington region, but workplace humor isn’t particularly popular among comics based in a company town. Even Funniest Fed, the annual comedy competition for amateur and experienced stand-ups with agency or military day jobs, features far more material about standard tropes (race, sex, family dysfunction, airplane food) than jokes about official Washington.
“There just aren’t a lot of people here who mine that stuff,” said Naomi Johnson, the Funniest Fed organizer who works at the Department of Homeland Security. “The responses are bigger and better for standard comedy fare. It could be that people are usually so saturated and tired of the news that they just want a break from it.”
But with massive automatic budget cuts looming and angst levels rising around the area, Johnson wants to organize a comedy showcase to help her co-workers blow off sequester steam. She’d call it Furlough Funnies.
“People are feeling scapegoated and are just trying to get through this,” she said. “They’re exhausted and angry and resigned. They need an opportunity to get together outside of the office and laugh.”
Tyler Richardson, a Department of Veterans Affairs operations analyst and comedy-circuit regular, recently wrote a two-minute bit that uses Chinese bill collectors, a bad President Barack Obama impression and Steven Seagal throwing ninja stars to explain the sequester. (You have to hear it to get it.)
It’s been a hit, he said — even with a friend who “is afraid of what’s going to happen, because she’s a big worrier. But she said it was a good joke. She laughed. When people come to hear comedy, no matter what they’re dealing with, they just want to be entertained. They just want to laugh, even if it’s about something that affects them.”
Richardson plans to use the bit in his sets going forward, including Sunday at the Improv. He’ll use it for as long as there’s a sequester.
“That’s the risk of investing in topical humor,” he said. At some point, the story changes, and the joke dies. Most stand-up comics would prefer to spend their time working on jokes with longevity — another reason there aren’t more jokes about the latest black cloud hovering over the federal workforce.
“You got any sequester jokes?” comedian Tim Miller asked open-mike host Kyle Martin before they went onstage at Topaz.
“I’m not wasting any time on that,” Martin replied.
The opposite is true on the late-night shows, which are all about ephemeral humor. Accordingly, sequester jokes have begun to surface in their monologues this week.
“Automatic budget cuts could negatively affect water and sewage services,” Conan O’Brien warned. “In other words, all of America is about to embark on a Carnival Cruise.”
Japed Jay Leno: “Doesn’t sequestration sound like some kind of side effect from a bad medicine?”
That, or it sounds like “obliteration,” a word that previously appeared in a song worked up by the Capitol Steps, to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The long-running political satire troupe (slogan: “We put the MOCK in democracy”) tweaked the lyric a few days ago. The song now goes: “Glory glory to our nation/We could face a sequestration/Let us try cooperation.” (Beat.) “Naaaaah!/And that we agree on.”
“Let’s face it, if you don’t laugh at this stuff, it makes you crazy,” said Mark Eaton, a writer and performer with the Capitol Steps, which performs Fridays and Saturdays near downtown Washington at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. “We’ve heard all the scare stories about the sequester here; we’re just trying to make good humor from bad situations.”
On Thursday night, about an hour before his 10-minute set, Rizvi stood near the back of the Enlightenment Room, reading over his new jokes, which he’d written on his smartphone. He looked up. “Has the sequester been solved yet?” he asked.
It had not. “Good,” he said. “I’d lose like three minutes of material tonight.”
He’d written three jokes — a quick one, about having always hated forced vacations, and two longer ones. He’d been working and reworking them at home and on breaks throughout the week. At the Labor Department, the mood had been gloomy all week. Here, though, he was giddy.
Oh, the bifurcation!
The jokes were a hit. Rizvi beamed, then wondered what comes next.
“I have dual feelings,” he said. “The comedian side wants the sequester to go on and on.” But, he said, “it’s unfair for me to want that . . . just so I can have a few minutes of material.”
It’s a funny business.