When the telephone rang in Bob Somerby's Bolton Hill home, it was the White House calling. They wanted him to be funny. This, Somerby does very well in his own voice. But the White House wanted him to be funny in Al Gore's voice. This, not even Al Gore has done.
"The vice president is going on the 'David Letterman Show'," said Gore's press secretary, Marla Romash. This was on a Sunday, the day before Labor Day. "We'd like you to write some material for him."
"When is he going on?" asked Somerby.
"Wednesday," said Romash.
Somerby comes by such a phone call naturally, and not so. He's one of the brightest stand-up comics in the country, and he's the only comic on the planet who once went to Harvard and roomed for three years with Al Gore. But who could write laugh lines in Gore's voice?
"Not a funny guy?" Somerby is asked yesterday morning.
"A normal guy," he replies. "A very nice guy, a very normal guy. But, you know, you have to write with a whole different set of ground rules. What's appropriate for a vice president to say?"
He's doing this interview carefully, and belatedly. When word slipped out that he'd written some of Gore's material for the Letterman show -- including some of the Top Ten list -- Somerby started getting an unanticipated level of response. Gore was a hit. The Associated Press and USA Today heard about Somerby's connection and wanted to run stories.
"Nah," said Somerby. "I don't want it to look like I'm trying to cash in on this. It's just bad form. It's like a betrayal of a friendship."
Then came a letter of thanks from the White House, and word that Tipper Gore had mentioned Somerby in a radio interview. So, what the heck: No longer breaking what might have seemed a confidence, he scuffles his feet and acknowledges a small role.
He helped humanize Al Gore. Gore wowed everybody, the wire services said. Had the band leader eating out of his hand, the drummer highlighting his punch lines with rim shots. Had a Top Ten list lampooning the vice presidency.
Among Somerby's contributions to the Top Ten Best Things About Being Vice President:
"Police escorts get you to the movies faster."
"You get all the french fries the president can't get to."
"I get intellectual property rights to my speeches" -- a little zinger at NBC trying to hold onto old Letterman routines.
"You don't have to be a good speller to get the job" -- a reference to his predecessor.
All of which, of course, lets a little secret out of the bag: Gore wasn't funny on his own. Does it detract from the impact?
"Of course not," says Somerby. "Who knows who writes that Top Ten list? Who cares? Letterman doesn't write it, but we don't tack qualifiers onto his performance."
Somerby wrote no jokes about Gore's much-publicized stiffness. thinks it's nonexistent.
"He has a lot of stiff jokes of his own," Somerby said. "But I'm sort of hostile to it, because he isn't stiff. What's amazing to me is how normal he is. I mean, Inaugural Week, they had some of our old roommates down to Washington.
"And you see, up close, what it's like to be that kind of celebrity. It's all these people wanting to stand next to you for five seconds. It's a wonder they're not all crazy. And he's not at all. He's very, very normal." In fact, Somerby suggested to Gore some material about one of their other roommates at Harvard: actor Tommy Lee Jones, currently hot in "The Fugitive."
"Funny," Somerby said, "a year after we graduated, Tommy got a spot in the movie 'Love Story.' And I remember thinking, gee, how did he do that? I didn't know he wanted to be a professional actor. Nobody in college talked about career back then. You talked about Vietnam."
Incidentally, Somerby never saw Gore's performance on the Letterman show.
"No, I haven't seen it," he was saying yesterday, from Columbus, Ohio. He flew out of Baltimore after playing Slapstix Comedy Club over the weekend, and after Columbus he'll head for Cleveland and Miami. It's a frenetic schedule, and one not given to regular sleeping or viewing habits.
"I wanted to watch the Letterman thing," he said. "But I turned on the Chevy Chase show, and I was out like a light."