No one actually decides to be funny. Mine was a very introverted, shy childhood I carried around inside of me; secretly wishing I could squeeze my eyes shut and when I opened them find I had turned into a female Groucho Marx.
I thought I’d never be part of a group, and, like Groucho, didn’t want to be a part of a group that would have me, anyway. I wasn’t a leader, nor was I a good follower. I certainly would never have considered a career that put me in contact with people I don’t know in an intimate way.
Short of serial killing, there’s no other occupation I would have aspired to less than helping strangers run for office by moving in with them, sometimes for weeks at a time.
The dangers of repeated exposure to me, or vice versa, I thought, were terribly threatening. I never had any clue what to say to make people like me, let alone laugh at something witty or particularly smart that I said. I took refuge in things that put a wall between me and any audience, whether of one or many.
I started acting, and then writing. With them, I discovered I could hide behind other people’s voices. It was a particularly pleasant revelation. With someone else’s words in my mouth, such as Joe Stein’s (I was in “Fiddler on the Roof”), I could finally relate. It never occurred to me then that this skill could provide a voice for other people to do some good. And then—later on in my career—I got pissed off.
Anger can be a great propellant for most activities; one hopes one won’t prove harmful to other people. In this case, I was angry that good candidates for office were losing. It was as simple as that.
I was writing sitcoms in Los Angeles, once again hiding behind other people’s mouths, as it were. (I wasn’t the funny one. A lot of sitcoms get written by pairs: One is usually the person who dreams up the story and makes sure it has an Act One, Two, and Three, and the other is the funny one, the free spirit, hilariously funny on her feet, never putting her hands on any keys of any computer— ever. My partner, Joan, was always the funniest person in the story room. If I said anything funny, it always came as a surprise to everyone else.)
At the same time, I also belonged to a powerful group of women called the Hollywood Women’s Political Caucus. In that group, I had wonderful access to candidates who were running for a whole spectrum of offices, and listened to a great many pitches. Most of them were quite disappointing. The candidates weren’t natural, said nothing memorable, and in the main, couldn’t utter a thought that didn’t sound like something straight out of a talking point memo—if even that structured.
The really embarrassing ones could barely get out a straight sentence, and assumed that their mere presence was enough to warrant a large donation from us. The difficult part was when someone who supported them, and had brought them before us, said, “But believe me, she (or in some cases, he) isn’t usually like this. If you get to know them, they’re really great.”
It all coalesced for me when Kathleen Brown was running for governor of California. She was (and is) a terrific woman, smart, clever, warm, and ably qualified for just about any elected office—but we never saw those parts of her. Instead, on the stump, we saw her turn into a closemouthed, almost inarticulate person, whose speech included something along the lines of: “I have a 52-page manual containing my views on the great issues surrounding California. I’d like you to read it.”
When she said that at her big Los Angeles luncheon, filled with hundreds of women clamoring for Kathleen, the room fell flat. People started leaving in the middle of the luncheon. To say it was disheartening is putting it mildly. I couldn’t see the true Kathleen anywhere in there, and that opinion never changed in the course of the losing campaign. I got pissed off. I couldn’t call myself an involved woman if I simply let more great candidates like her lose when I could help.
At the very least, my skill at hiding behind my characters’ mouths could be useful. I started begging candidates to let me write for them, and most of those I approached were amiable about it.
There were obstacles, though: mostly their consultants, strategists, and media people. No disrespect intended, but I have never met more resistance to making a candidate more natural, more themselves, and more able to cause audiences to listen, than that which came from the ones charged with getting them elected. It seemed like I was a stealth bomb, put there more in the guise of a naive writer from Hollywood—God forbid— than a person who wanted to help make a good candidate more electable to his or her district.
The usual response then was that the most immediate need was raising money, raising money, and, oh, by the way, raising money. “What do they say when they ask for the money?” I would usually ask. But that’s where that conversation stopped. “Stay on message” was the litany.
Stay on message and never say anything real, never say anything schmoozy, and for heaven’s sake, never say anything that could be interpreted by the potential donor as a true empathic conversation. In other words, say as little off-script as possible. And what does the script say? Well, most who read this magazine will know that already. Those of us who have made it onto donor lists hear that script all the time. The same one gets read to us by volunteers who phone bank and say the same thing the candidate says.
No one ever sounds like a real person talking to another real person. I accepted this as received wisdom for a while, and then I rebelled. Surely, there must be a way to make the consultants trust me. After all, I wanted the same thing they did—to get their candidate elected.
My first tries had been rejected on the grounds that I wasn’t in politics and didn’t know the ropes of creating a message and stump speech. OK, that was fair. I didn’t. But what I did know was what gets attention. That’s easy for any sitcom writer. Create an opening that lets an audience know you identify with them—the first rule of communication.
However, that’s not enough to comprise a stump speech. There must be a theme, a beginning, a middle, and an end; issues that are identifiable, with anecdotes to illustrate them, plus the right demographics with whom to use them. (One wouldn’t necessarily be talking about senior healthcare to an audience of young people, for instance, but student loans might resonate big-time.)
But that’s not enough, either. Whatever happened to a solution? Just about every issue posed in a stump speech sounds like variations on this: “We must implement change to our education! Too many people have to choose between their healthcare and putting food on the table! We must implement change to our healthcare system! We must work on a bipartisan level; I will roll up my sleeves and reach across the aisles!” (If I never hear the word “implement” again, it will be too soon.)
All we, the audience, can do is agree: Yes, the education system needs to be changed. Yes, we have huge problems with healthcare. But, so what? What about a proposed solution? I kept feeling like I was going around a maze. How many in the audience felt the same way? I knew what happened on television when an audience felt that way. They flipped the channel. Good way to get a show canceled.
My journey toward politics eventually took me to a great organization called Progressive Majority. A woman named Gloria Totten told me she was going to run an organization dedicated to the state legislature, county offices, and city councils of the U.S., finding and developing progressive candidates and changing the structure of a heretofore underdeveloped ladder of electoral change. It was a powerful pitch. She knew how to hold an audience’s attention, and mine sure didn’t wander. She wanted me to know that the truly important closeto- home, day-to-day important people should be holding these offices, and when we developed better candidates, we were potentially changing everything at ground level. At last!
I told Gloria there was no way she wasn’t taking me, and, bless her, she did. I moved to Washington, D.C. I got to test out my new strategies for creating a stump speech, and I even formulated my thoughts into a workshop titled “6 Failsafe Steps to Creating a Message and Stump Speech.” Sounded good. Sounded authoritative, at least.
The best part about working with that team—Gloria, Anna Ekindjian, Traci Siegel, Dean Nielsen, and Doug Burnett in the beginning—was that we got to really stretch our political nerve. And, as a result, I started to work intensely with our candidates, one on one. At first, I interviewed them for an hour or so, usually at the state offices of the Progressive Majority Washington State or Wisconsin, some of our early states. However, I soon discovered that what approximated an interview in an office usually presented a nervous candidate, who simply had no idea what the real people in his or her district were like, what their dreams for the future were, or what their worries were.
It got so I would ask to go anywhere but the office, just to take the onus of meeting there off the candidate. I wanted a more relaxed setting, a place where the candidate could let down, and let me observe him or her in their natural setting. What better place than in their home, on the street while meeting people, or canvassing other homes on the weekend?
In some cases, I got to see situations where they lost an opportunity to be the selves they would normally be if they had just met these people. They clammed up. All they did was say hello that they were running for office, offer a palm card (otherwise known as a slim jim) and move on. They felt they had accomplished the goal of grabbing some good, electable attention. In my mind, that was a debatable subject.
In most of the encounters, I saw a lost opportunity to, in 30 seconds or so, make real contact in the same way two strangers exchange similarities at a party, say. Yet, when I would sit in the candidates’ homes and relate to their children, wives, husbands, or significant others, I would find out their passions and what really drove them to run for office.
Gold poured out of their mouths: little gems of anecdotes about what pissed them off enough to want to change the received wisdom that “the way things are will never change.”
An example: One woman in a small town in Washington State—a small businesswoman, running for city council— told me her business was dying. Why? Because the city council had made her main street, where her business was located, a highway to Seattle. In their infinite lack of wisdom, they had turned a rural community into a commuter town, with no neighborhood pharmacy, no grocery stores, and bounded by a 20-mile belt with two malls.
Her business had suffered because, among other reasons, the main street, now highway, had no parking spaces! But even that, she told me, hadn’t prompted her to run for office. She was part of a small business group, similar to Rotary, which had lobbied the city council to no effect. She was ready to accept that things were going to be “the way they are,” until a tragic event happened.
Simply as part of a conversation in her kitchen, I asked if the kids here could walk to school. “They could,” she said, “but…” She hesitated. “But what?” I asked. “The last quarter mile of the walk to the school has no sidewalks.”
“Did anyone get hurt?” She told me sadly that a 12-year-old girl was killed while riding her bike on that patch. “And what did the city council do about it?” I asked, horrified. “They built a $23 million new city council building.”
“That’s what I said, too.”
“Were you furious?”
And then you decided to run for the city council?”
She had never said that until I chatted with her for three hours over cups of tea in her home. That anecdote led to other suggestions for what they could have done with only a few thousand dollars here and there, plus some pragmatic ideas for what could be done to alleviate the feeling of a ruined community.
She had some wonderful thoughts, which I incorporated into her stump speech immediately—tailoring some for business audiences and some for families with children who would be as outraged as she was about the death of a child due to the lack of a sidewalk.
Would we have gotten to those thoughts if I hadn’t made her sit down and really examine the district, the real people and their problems that they had simply grown to accept in the same way she had? Maybe. But the point is, I had found an entry into her passion.
Most people thought of her as slightly phlegmatic. Not me. I found her to be a passionate, deeply committed person—someone a lot of people had never seen before. I decided the only way I’d get to know someone was to get to be as representative of the people living in a district as I could.
In other words, to get inside the skin of the elderly widow who had no way to get to a doctor unless her daughter took off from work; the teenager who had given up understanding school reading or math and was going to be a dropout statistic by age 15; the married couple who had bet on their investment in their home to finance their childrens’ education. I had to put myself behind other people’s voices again, only this time those voices were real.
Having to identify with people living in another district whose lives were impacted daily by the work of elected officials certainly helped me find a sorely lacking sense of empathy. I started to bypass the standard hotel when I worked with candidates, preferring to live in their homes and see their lives and the lives of their neighbors and friends.
Why? Simply because it increased the empathy factor. It helped me do my job, which was, as I defined it, to find the passion I had sorely yearned for in those candidates pitching the Hollywood Women’s Political Caucus. I wanted to dig into the strong emotions that made someone from no political background decide they had to run for office.
I wanted to pose the difficult questions that were lurking in the back of the electorate’s collective mind, like: What can I really hope for in the future? Will my life be secure? Will my child wind up an educated person or with no future at all? Will I be able to support myself and my family? What if I get sick? What if my mom gets sick and I live 2,000 miles away?
I had to learn what was possible, and then ask the candidate to think beyond that. To stretch beyond received wisdom into the realm of the “We could be, why aren’t we?” Only by living with candidates could I find the honest answers to those questions. By staying for a week at a time— sometimes more—I could begin to feel the difficulties they had accepted as a given and see how they interacted with average people on the street and the most important people in their lives. I could only help by showing them that the only strangers in their life were friends they hadn’t met yet, as the saying goes.
I wrote their stump speeches, and watched them in front of audiences to see what made their heads nod and what produced no interest. I listened while they spoke on the phone to donors and showed them that it was no different from a conversation with a new friend. I walked precincts and made the connections alongside them. I incorporated their collective stories into their pitch, and kept putting these stories into the candidate’s imaginary quiver, so they could identify with anyone, anytime and helped them unleash the real drama in their presentations.
By doing this work so intimately, so passionately with my candidates, I found that I could do the same in reverse. Somewhere in that process, I finally discovered that I possessed my own voice, too. And discovered that mythical beast, the club that wanted me in it as much as I wanted to be.
Jennie Blackton is a former sitcom writer/producer, radio and TV talk show host, actress, dancer, vice president of three film companies and now a political communications consultant. She is definitely not the “funny one.” But she is very much the “happy one.”