I Like Politicians That Are Funny, Not Stumbling Sociopaths

One of my many secret vices is NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me!

A few episodes ago [npr] they had Stacey Abrams on the show, and – damn – is she quick. It was heartwarming to hear an American politician who is funny and smart.

Stacey is on at 21:27 if you want to jump right to her. There are a few moments when Peter Segal pokes her with prepared content and she fires right back. I assume Segal, like most improv comics, keeps a few framing lines up his sleeve, which Abrams was not able to do (since she was responding) – it’s one of the ways that comedians manage to sound smarter than the average person.

Segal: We should start by saying, you’ve presumably been listening from offstage, do you have an official response to the first half of our show?
Abrams: I do, but it requires a tele-prompter, a fake non-greenscreen, and a union hall.

Pow! As I listened to that exchange a few times to transcribe it, you can practically hear Abrams’ mental gears whirring. Seat of the pants comedy like this is really really hard to do well.

Segal: You must know that [giving the response to the state of the union] is a cursed job?
Abrams: I don’t have a job right now, so I was free.

“Don’t quit your day job” quips are thereby ruled out.

Segal: It’s technically called a ‘response’. Did you think at all about what you thought president Trump might say, so you could respond to him?
Abrams: I would put it this way: (pause) I’ve heard him speak before. (long silence) (much laughter) I assumed it would be some combination of demagoguery, self-aggrandizement, two lines about something nice that he would, three lines later overrule…
Segal: Did you know that it would rhyme?
Abrams: I feel sorry for whoever thought that was the right way to go.

Georgia, clearly, could have done better.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    like most improv comics, keeps a few framing lines up his sleeve

    I use a similar tactical strategy, which I call “planned spontaneity”

  2. says

    Reginald Selkirk@#1:
    I use a similar tactical strategy, which I call “planned spontaneity”

    I had a lengthy and fascinating discussion with a freestyle rapper, about how his memory and flow work. He hadn’t really ever thought about it before, but after a lot of digging (and some really amazing freestyle thrown my way) he started pulling it apart and concluded that his mechanism is similar – he has little planned chunks of framing and can deploy them or not, as the circumstances warrant, then the rest is automatically filled in by associative memory. I have never gotten a chance to debrief a comedian but I suspect that there’s a similar mechanism in effect. In the case of someone like Peter Segal (and apparently Stacy Abrams!) it probably consists of thinking about it the night before and pigeonholing some bon mots. “Planned spontaneity” indeed – preparation meets opportunity.

    One theater teacher I knew used to love to say “let’s rehearse this until it looks spontaneous.”

  3. says

    In case here’s anybody else who, like me, does not have iTunes installed on their computer, here https://www.npr.org/2019/02/09/692760758/not-my-job-we-quiz-georgia-politician-stacey-abrams-on-bromances you can listen this show without installing any unnecessary extra software.

    I assume Segal, like most improv comics, keeps a few framing lines up his sleeve, which Abrams was not able to do (since she was responding) – it’s one of the ways that comedians manage to sound smarter than the average person.

    I assume that a significant portion of those people who are good at speaking prepare their lines or stories. And it’s not just people who get paid for speaking in front of TV cameras, this goes also for that random stranger you just met in some conference who seemed really good at telling interesting stories at the dinner table.

    Several years ago I used to work as a public speaking teacher in a debate club, and oratory is a topic I’m interested in. This is why I have been doing some “field research.” When talking with people, if I have already once heard this person tell me some story or joke, I often let them tell me the same story again for the second time. If somebody forgets that they already told me something, I won’t inform them about this and pretend that I hadn’t heard this story already. This way I get to compare how some person tells me the same story for the first and second time. Many people will tell me the same story almost word for word both times; they will tell it exactly the same way, use the same punchlines. If that’s what I hear, I assume that the person I’m speaking with is preparing at least some of their stories and lines in advance.

    I have been doing this for years with every friend or acquaintance* whom I deem at least a somewhat good speaker (I don’t do this with people who are bad orators, with them it’s not interesting for me to study how they speak). So far my observations are that people who try to be funny and tell jokes tend to at least prepare their punchlines if not entire stories in advance. However, the extent to which somebody will prepare their stories differs a lot. There are also people who don’t do it that often if at all. For example, my current boyfriend who, like me, also used to be a debate teacher is so good at improvising that he doesn’t even need to prepare speeches in advance, but the catch is that he’s also very serious and doesn’t even try to be funny or tell jokes. If all you need is a comprehensible and nice sounding story that’s explained in a logical manner, there’s no need to prepare in advance.

    Personally, I prepare my speeches and stories in advance only when I need to impress other people with my oratory skills. I do that for public speeches and also for conversations with employers who are paying me money. For conversations with friends I usually don’t bother. Occasionally, if I know that I will meet some friend in a few days and I happen to read about some topic I know that they are interested in, then I do prepare my story—I think about what I will say and plan my “mini speech.” I know that I cannot be funny or tell jokes anyway, so I don’t bother with punchlines.

    Preparing for public speeches is easy—I have the stage and I control what I will say. I usually don’t bother writing my speeches, but I do think about what I will say. Preparing to entertain a boss with interesting stories is more complicated. I have to fluidly incorporate those in a conversation, I cannot just deliver lectures. If I know my boss’ interests, I will prepare to talk about several various topics that they might perceive as interesting for them. As the conversation flows, if they say something that allows me to link one of my prepared stories with what they have said, then I will lead the conversation that way while pretending that this topic spontaneously crossed my mind after what the boss said.

    That being said, I do have a bunch of prepared stories permanently stored in my memory, if I meet some person and have to hold a conversation with them, I can always tell one of these prepared stories and sound like I’m good at communicating and nice to have conversations with. However, I’m trying to be careful with this—just because some topic is interesting for me doesn’t mean that some random person I just met will be willing to listen to me talking about it, perhaps for them it is boring. Ultimately, often the best way how to make sure that others like talking with me is by being a good listener. And for me this one’s easy to do, at least as long as I don’t get bored by whatever the other person is telling me.

    * By the way, Marcus, I did that with you in Stuttgart too. The only conclusion I got was that my memory sucks. And that one wasn’t even a new conclusion, instead it just confirmed what I already knew. If I hear some story twice with only a few day interval, then I can compare how it was told each time. If I hear again some story that I had already heard a year ago, then I can no longer recall how exactly it was told the first time.

  4. Mano Singham says

    I listened to an interview with host Peter Sagel where he said that he has a team of writers who give him a lot of material beforehand but that often some of the best bits come from the unscripted moments in response to guests.

  5. ridana says

    Thanks for the direct link, Ieva! I have iTunes installed for music management, but I avoid the store like the plague.

    “Those were the ghosts of votes uncounted.” Sharp indeed!

  6. John Morales says

    Hm. The last two featured quotations are evasive non-answers, the first is an evasive answer.

    (Not the hallmark of a trustworthy person)

  7. cvoinescu says

    John Morales @ #7:
    1. Have you listened to the first part of the show? There’s nothing to respond to. The question itself is a joke, which you may have missed. She was the one to give the response to the state of the union address, and she did do so from a union hall (this is mentioned a bit earlier in the show). The answer is brilliant: it acknowledges the joke, and is even funnier.
    2. You can’t really expect a serious answer to this kind of superstition. Her answer implies that she’s not worried about the consequences to her political career because it’s already not going the way she wanted it. Seems clear to me.
    3. That is definitely an answer, and a very clear one. Not only yes, she thought about it, she even tells us what she thought.
    I think you’re simply being contrary, and I don’t see why.

    Marcus, the show is lovely, by the way. Thank you.

  8. John Morales says

    cvoinescu, to what supposed contrariness do you refer?

    I haven’t disputed anything Marcus wrote in the OP. I entirely accept he finds her funny and non-sociopathic. I also accept that comics keep pat responses handy.

    (She sure sounds like a politician, though. Vague non-answers are their stock-in-trade)

    If I wanted to be contrary, I’d note that “planned spontaneity” is an oxymoron, though obviously the misnomer refers to ‘planned apparent spontaneity’, which is not.

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