Though comedians tend to be sad sacks of sorrow who thrive on bad luck, a lot of them seem to at least enjoy easy transitions from the stage to various other mediums. From film to podcasting, countless stand-up comics have been able to skip the long line of people vying for top spots the old-fashioned way.
That trend doesn’t necessarily apply to politics, though. While people often want their actors and radio hosts to be funny, it’s a different story when it comes to picking our leaders. Sure, dolts like George W. Bush and even President Donald Trump can seem downright hilarious in their cruelty and stupidity; but when it comes to voting for public officials, sense of humor isn’t a priority.
In 2018, Cambridge-based comedy icon Jimmy Tingle set out to become an exception to this general rule. And though he didn’t make it all the way to Beacon Hill, his run for lieutenant governor helped him connect with thousands of voters and inspired his new special, 20/20 Vision, which premiered at the Wilbur Theatre in December and resurfaces at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre this Saturday.
We asked Tingle about life on and after the campaign trail.
Who do you usually rap about politics with? Other comedians? Your fellow political science nerds from the Harvard Kennedy School?
I don’t really talk that much about it; I listen more than I talk. I read whatever I can get my hands on. I don’t really discuss it. I process what I hear independently and creatively. I just don’t have a circle of people like that. When you’re listening to the radio, though, you’re kind of in a conversation, you’re just not talking. You’re a fly on the wall, absorbing information.
When you’re writing, what do you use as a starting point since you work with such timely subjects?
Well, this particular show is about how I ran for office in 2018, and for over a year and a half I performed very little. I was just concentrating on the election, the campaign, being a serious candidate. I didn’t write a joke for a year—I was absorbed with that. And when the campaign was over, I was kind of like, “Well, I gotta make a living.” It took a little while to transition back into it, and in trying to figure out where I wanted to pick up, I decided to do a show about running for office and why I did it. The most common question I get is, “Jimmy, why would a comedian want to run for office?” That’s the through line of this particular show. It’s really from memory and personal observation and reliving the experience on stage.
I’m also interjecting video and clips and stories and ideas and premises that explain why I would go into serious politics. So you’ll see a bit about immigration, and a bit about guns, from before I ever ran for office.
Why lieutenant governor? Did you do a survey of all the positions you could feasibly run for?
When I first started thinking about running, I had already been asked about races that are local, like [Cambridge] City Council. My passion was more statewide, though, and more nationally focused—it always has been. You’re talking about bigger themes. That’s where my attention’s always been, and I wanted to be in the room where it happens—and help—but not be in charge. I don’t want to run things, but I think I can help. And when I first thought of the idea and said it to [former Mass Congressman Barney Frank], I asked him if it was too late to run for office. He said, “No.” I was just inspired, and he said after the [2016 presidential] election we should have lunch. And he said lieutenant governor was the right position, like a vice president for a governor. A liaison to the legislature, he thought I’d be perfect for it. And he said if I was serious, he’d be the honorary chairperson for my campaign. When I got that nod of approval, I stopped thinking about other things.
What was an issue that was something you wanted to address at the state level that you didn’t feel enough people were talking about?
They might have been hearing about it, and this is in the show, but I had a message that resonated in the audience and it wasn’t really a political message. I have lost friends to alcohol and drugs, and at one point in the ’80s started going downhill myself. I started calling places for help—rehabs, treatment centers, hospitals—and I was getting the runaround. Everybody knows somebody who has tried to get into these places or has tried themself.
I called the Cambridge City Hospital, and they had a partially federally funded program. I said to the man who answered the phone that I need help, and he said, “You called the right place.” And you never hear that. You never hear a cheery voice. I went to that program, I stayed seven days through Christmas, I got out, I moved to New York City, and I focused on recovery and stand-up comedy. That’s all I did for the year, and a year from the day of me going into that hospital, I got a shot on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. The other guest was Bob Hope.
My whole thing was that I was running for lieutenant governor so that any time that somebody picks up a phone in Massachusetts and reaches out for help, the answer on the other end is always, “You came to the right place.” It’s a crisis across the country, and Massachusetts is no exception.
Is that the main message that you are looking for people to walk away with?
It’s really a call to action, and getting people involved. It’s more thematic than it is topical. It’s about applying all the tools in the toolbox to make the country better—physical tools, mental tools, spiritual tools.
What’s your encore? Are you running again?
I have no plans to run, but I would never say that I’m done. I’m happy doing comedy, but after Trump won, I thought that if he can use his communication skills to get his message across, I can use my experience as an entertainer to get my message across. He speaks in three-word messages: Build the wall, drain the swamp, lock her up. We have our own three words—feed the hungry. Not only the people who are hungry for food, but the people who are hungry for opportunity. The people who are hungry to fulfill their potential. House the homeless. Heal the sick, healthcare is a human right. And welcome the stranger. This isn’t even my message—this is Martin Luther King, this is Jesus Christ, these are the spiritual principles of the world’s major religions.
JIMMY TINGLE’S 20/20 VISION. SAT 2.29 AT HARVARD’S SANDERS THEATRE, 45 QUINCY ST., CAMBRIDGE. TICKETS AND MORE INFO AT JIMMYTINGLE.COM.