Why is politics in this state so serious?

Minnesota politicos need to loosen up.

The death of Sen. Ted Kennedy reminds us how politicians can often become “larger than life.” Kennedy was bigger than life, but not just because of the Kennedy name or legacy. In many ways, it was because of his humor, jokes and stories.

For the past few years, Minnesota politics has been lacking humor, jokes and stories. (We just elected a comedian, who isn’t allowed to be funny.) As we look at our current cast of political characters, it’s pretty milquetoast.

But there’s hope on the horizon. One recent newspaper column reported that state Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, told a potential supporter at the State Fair that he was wearing union-made underwear. Finally, a quote in the 2010 governor’s race that makes us smile.

Rep. Tom Rukavina
Rep. Tom Rukavina

This evoked a theory I’ve worked on for years: that we are losing our “characters” — you know, the man or woman in our lives who is always good for a laugh or a story, appropriate or not. The drunk uncle at Christmas dinner or the quirky neighbor who plays jokes and tells stories.

In Minnesota politics, the names of Perpich, Rolvaag, Carlson and Ventura come to mind. We’ve had drunks, “rasslers,” grumps and “goofies” in the corner office at the Capitol. But not so these past seven years.

Formulaic jokes
Think about it. The funniest thing Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said while in office was something about how his wife liked fishing more than sex with him. And almost anyone who has heard one of the three formulaic jokes Pawlenty tells to kick off every speech will tell you they stopped being funny years ago.

Characters get stuff done, they break down partisan tension with humor and they build trust. This is a political asset we can’t afford lose.

Jesse Ventura
CORBIS
Jesse Ventura

Rukavina’s revelation isn’t the first time we’ve thought about a governor’s skivvies. Remember Gov. Jesse Ventura’s unfortunate comment that he didn’t wear underwear? For some voters was too much information. But if the 2010 governor’s race is going to be in full swing more than a year before the election, we should welcome Rukavina’s revealing comment as a little relief from all the campaign seriousness.

The next governor will have difficult issues to tackle, and Minnesota would do well if the winner had a little wit and humor to get us through the headaches.

Pawlenty isn’t the only example of Minnesota’s humorless politicians. Oh sure, you betcha, Sen Amy Klobuchar can deliver a joke about lefsa or Lutherans. But like Pawlenty, her jokes are too scripted to be authentically funny.

Sen. Al Franken can no doubt tell a joke, if he wasn’t working so damn hard to be serious. If we give it time, maybe he’ll let down the guard and crack a few one-liners. And while Rep. Michele Bachmann is a character, she’s become a caricature. Besides, no one ever thinks she’s funny.

As one surveys the field in the race for governor, Rukavina stands out. But he isn’t alone in his ability to turn a phrase or make someone chuckle or blush. I find most politicians have a sense of humor, but the realities of our hyper-sensitive You Tube world have made them less likely to crack a joke or tell a funny story.

Rep. Marty Seifert
Rep. Marty Seifert

Humor behind the scenes
GOP Rep. Marty Seifert is well-known for trying really hard to turn a funny quote at every turn, with some success. Seifert and Rukavina have lit up smiles on the state House floor for years. Rep. Tom Emmer is often a passionate and colorful debater on the House floor. As the father seven kids and coming from a Catholic family, he delivers old-fashioned and colorful humor behind the scenes. And Sen. Tom Bakk has shown signs that he has what it takes to keep us smiling.

But others in the field for governor — Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Rep. Paul Thissen, former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, Rep. Matt Entenza, Rep. Paul Kohls, Rep. Bill Haas — are kind of boring. No offense, but they just don’t seem to be quick with a quip or colorful story.

Of the not-yet announced crop of candidates, Mayor R.T. Rybak is known for wearing two different socks. But he may have gone Pawlenty on us: I don’t remember the last time anyone noticed his socks or when he cracked a joke. (Across the river, Mayor Chris Coleman is a well-known smart ass, so much so his staff has fretted about putting him on Twitter, fearing what he might say off-the-cuff.)

So as the race for governor moves along, here’s hoping we get more colorful quotes, quips, jokes and stories to keep us from getting too serious.

The cure to hyper-partisanship could be a colorful next governor. Otherwise, for the foreseeable future, our collective undies will be in a bundle.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 09/09/2009 - 12:10 pm.

    This isn’t only true in Minnesota, but most people don’t have a very good sense of humor. They can’t tell a joke. They can’t laugh at a joke. They take offense when none was intended. Or they laugh at the misfortune of others. I’ve heard more Minnesotans laugh together at a waitress dropping a tray than I have at “A Prairie Home Companion.”

    And when you take off of the table those things that Minnesotans REALLY don’t like to laugh about, you’ve removed all religion, all outdoor activities, all school activities, all colleges, all people, every city (even Saint Paul), every profession. Look at the trouble Jesse Ventura got into for talking about Saint Paul streets.

    So what do you expect.

  2. Submitted by Grace Kelly on 09/09/2009 - 12:29 pm.

    When people have to go without healthcare or go bankrupt, that tends to leave people feeling like there is no humor left. You obviously have a job and healthcare and can close your eyes to other people’s suffering.

    Think of how you would feel if someone joked about your layoff after it happened.

  3. Submitted by William Levin on 09/09/2009 - 12:53 pm.

    Adlai Stevenson, quoting Abraham Lincoln: “I’m too old to cry, but it hurts too much to laugh.”

  4. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/09/2009 - 04:15 pm.

    Kinky Friedman, cigar-chompin’ leader of the Texas Jewboys Band and mystery novel writer, as his campaign slogan when he ran for governor of Texas: How Hard Can It Be?

  5. Submitted by Joel Rosenberg on 09/10/2009 - 07:02 am.

    So . . . Blois Olson, Michael Brodkorb, and Bob Fletcher walk into a bar. Bartender looks up at them and says, “What is this? Some kind of joke?”

    I’ll be here all week, folks; try the veal.

  6. Submitted by Blois Olson on 09/10/2009 - 08:36 am.

    Joel,

    I can’t speak for Fletcher, but the scene has happened with Michael and I.

    Cheers. Let me know when you’re playing next.

    Blois

  7. Submitted by Joel Rosenberg on 09/10/2009 - 09:05 am.

    Err… that should have been “Michael and me.” And, yeah, I’ve heard both of you speaking respectfully of each other, which — IMHO, and all — is all to the good. Seriously. As you imply in your article, there’s really no good reason that a bit of humor and friendliness will prevent partisans on any side from going after each other on political matters.

    Much better to leave the incivility to that jerk who goes around wearing that t-shirt that says, “I was slow-rolled by the Pawlenty administration, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.” What’s his name, I for —

    — oh. That’s me.

  8. Submitted by Joel Rosenberg on 09/10/2009 - 09:07 am.

    When people have to go without healthcare or go bankrupt, that tends to leave people feeling like there is no humor left. You obviously have a job and healthcare and can close your eyes to other people’s suffering.

    Think of how you would feel if someone joked about your layoff after it happened.

    Seriously, Grace: lighten up. By your standards, all humor should have been called off during the Great Depression or WWII.

Leave a Reply