When a New York news producer called state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno about legislation he sponsored exempting gun clubs from noise regulations, the Anne Arundel County Democrat thought it a serious inquiry into a serious issue.
When she asked to send a reporter to Jimeno's Annapolis office for an on-camera interview, the senator thought it curious - the bill became law last year without controversy. But he figured the Empire State was considering similar legislation to keep gun clubs open - and sprawl at bay.
Turns out, the joke was on Jimeno.
The producer was from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a deadpan send-up of breathless television newscasts that airs nightly on cable's Comedy Central.
Jimeno, of Brooklyn Park, hadn't heard of The Daily Show when Stephen Colbert showed up for the interview last week. But he's been watching it ever since with his 16-year-old daughter, Monica.
"Now, I'm scared to death," Jimeno said, laughing.
Jimeno even asked Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens if she could arrange for a cable outage in his district from 11-11:30 tonight, when his segment will air.
Perhaps Jimeno has reason to worry. Instead of cutting his teeth at small newspapers in towns like Kenosha, Colbert honed his skills on Saturday Night Live and in the improvisational troupe Second City. With an intense gaze and his signature "Stone Phillips eyebrow" - one brow up, slowly, as eyes laser in on his subject - Colbert draws hilarious answers from the same sort of straight questions he posed to Jimeno.
In "Booby Trap," a recent episode parodying Fox's When Animals Attack, Colbert delivered his report as women in various degrees of undress flashed across the screen. His brow in full upward tilt, Colbert asked a feminist scholar, in all earnestness, "Why have girls gone wild?"
The Daily Show's researchers honed in on Jimeno's legislation while mining news reports from around the country of environmentalists teaming up with the National Rifle Association and other gun advocates to pass laws protecting gun clubs. Shooting-range owners worried that, as subdivisions overtook once-rural surroundings, their new neighbors would try to pass noise restrictions that would force them out of business. Anti-sprawl groups backed the gun lobby, arguing that a shooting range is still green space.
"It was the odd bedfellows thing, the gun club as wetland," Colbert said.
Colbert said Jimeno doesn't have to worry about half-naked women or other such silliness during his segment. Nor should he worry that the producers will doctor the interview - they don't do that. But Colbert wasn't sure how the segment, which includes shots of Pintail Point, an Eastern Shore resort that offers hunting, and an interview with a member of the preservation group 1000 Friends of Maryland, will unfold. The staff was still editing it yesterday.
"I don't even know if it's going to be funny," the comedian quipped.
Jimeno got his first inkling that Colbert and company were not your everyday TV crew from his aide, Amy Mauk. A fan of the show, Mauk thought someone was playing a joke on her boss when the Colbert crew arrived in Annapolis for their appointment. She immediately called Jimeno, who was en route to the State House. Mauk told him that The Daily Show was a news spoof show.
"If I'd known that," Jimeno said, "I would have bought a whoopee cushion and a rubber nose."
Turns out he was better off studying his files on the law over the weekend.
Colbert asked an hour's worth of questions for the three-minute segment. How did the NRA types work with the tree-huggers? Were they strange bedfellows? Was the senator in the NRA's pocket?
Both said the interview was professional, conducted without even a glint of sarcasm.
"We try to ask straight questions most of the time," Colbert said. "It's usually in the context of the various people we ask that they seem ridiculous."
Even after the unmasking, Jimeno didn't quite grasp the show's focus - or its popularity. He got a clue when the interview ended. He left his office to attend a Senate session, and Colbert and crew followed him. Interns, aides, reporters and other lawmakers recognized Colbert instantly. The son of state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, asked Jimeno, incredulously: "Do you know who that is?"
Jimeno admits he felt a tad foolish - after all, he's been in state politics since 1979. "I guess I live a sheltered life," he said.
Jimeno and his aides are hoping he doesn't feel even more foolish tomorrow. His joking plea to Owens aside, Jimeno said he's not too worried.
"Nobody," he said, "has a better sense of political humor than I do."