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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Some Funny Business at Convention

August 16, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

It's common wisdom that no one is less funny than a Republican.

Hence, the obstacle that faced cable's Comedy Central this week after extending its cheeky "InDecision 96" coverage of the election campaign to the Republican National Convention in San Diego.

Included were special nightly editions of that late-night snort of fun and conversation, "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher," which one evening delivered a hilarious spoof of the convention as an infomercial that acutely caught the tone of "Amazing Discovery," and on opening night had comedian Chris Rock reporting live from the field about attending a rally for Pat Buchanan.

"Were you treated well at the Buchanan rally?" Maher asked Rock. "Well, I don't know what to say," replied Rock, who is African American. "We have a clip."

Cut to footage of the Rodney G. King beating.

Portions of "InDecision 96" were like squeezing humor from a turnip early in the week, though, especially some of those periodic live cut-ins from the convention floor by oddly coupled comedy writer-performer Al Franken, a liberal Democrat, and Arianna Huffington, a conservative Republican.

Franken generally held up his end, including a brief chat with Steve Gunderson, a gay congressman from Wisconsin, that yielded a memorable line. "At one point in your life did you tell your parents," Franken asked soberly, "that you were a Republican?"

There were mildly dicey moments, too, giving the impression that Franken, who obviously delighted in being the itch Republicans couldn't shed, had an escape car waiting outside the convention hall with the motor running. He did his country hick impression of Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, for example, while interviewing Gramm. He tried speaking to Henry Kissinger in a thick accent that Kissinger didn't seem to warm to. "Your son says I do you better dan anvone else. Vat do you think?"

And this to Ed Rollins, the former GOP political consultant just out with a book savaging Huffington and her husband, Michael, whose losing 1994 California senatorial bid Rollins managed: "You take $100,000 from them and write a book in which you trash 'em!"

Indeed, for Arianna Huffington is best known these days for being "the most ruthless, unscrupulous and ambitious person" Rollins says he has met in 30 years in national politics. Beneath her "allure and style," Rollins writes in "Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms," lurks "the soul of a wily sorceress." True or not (and Rollins' credibility is not something you'd bet the mortgage on), notice that he didn't say witty sorceress.

With good reason, based on "InDecision 96." Not that some of the Republicans she found were themselves anything less than thick, impenetrable logs when asked to be fast on their feet.

Huffington to that great ribber Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri: "Why is it do you think that we Republicans have this reputation of not having fun?"

Ashcroft, letting his natural whimsy take flight: "Oh, I don't know. The big lie is too easy to tell. We have great fun. If you wanna watch people havin' a good time, you talk to people who believe in the future, who aren't afraid to face the future, who believe in growth, who believe in opportunity, and that's what this ticket's gonna stand for. Giving people tax relief so people can spend their own money instead of having the government spend it for 'em. That's really what this agenda's gonna be about."

But enough of this levity.

After exhausting her obligatory questions about vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp, Huffington again sought a lighter theme: "What about simple things, like food at this convention? Have you ever paid for a meal at a convention? Or is somebody always treating you to something?"

Getting his cue from Huffington's grin, Ashcroft took this devilment and ran with it: "Well, you know something? I missed lunch today. We're staying at the Embassy Suites, which has a free breakfast any time you stay there. And I guess I'm gonna try and find some snack this evening. You don't pay for a lot of food because there's a lot of snack food all the time."

Where was a laugh track when you needed one?

Later, Huffington cornered another fountain of frivolity, Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, launching her relentless mirth with a question about his wife, Susan.

Huffington: "Now tell me the truth, who do you spend more time with these days: Susan or Newt Gingrich?"

Armey, a slave to his sense of mischief: "Oh, I suppose I spend more hours actually with Newt than I do Susan, but I spend more quality time with Susan."

Huffington: "I hope so."

They were on a roll.

*

Fortunately for "InDecision 96," Franken was still in the hall, laser-locked on GOP force Pat Robertson while trying to penetrate the circle of media tightening around the televangelist.

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