With annual roast on menu, politicians sharpening knives
A guy dressed in sweats is driving 108 miles per hour, looking at storm damage in total darkness, when he crashes his state-owned car.
Cue the punchline.
When Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray got into his car accident last fall, he did not just imperil his life and professional future. He provided prime fodder for the St. Patrick’s Day political roast on Sunday in South Boston, an annual breakfast where political vulnerabilities are exploited to their fullest.
“Under those circumstances, you’re not looking at storm damage,’’ said comedian Jimmy Tingle. “You are storm damage.’’
Murray is planning to take the hits in person, and how he handles the inevitable barbs - and addresses the accident in his own remarks - will be closely watched as the potential gubernatorial candidate tries to rehabilitate his image.
But the lieutenant governor will by no means be the sole target at the breakfast, an all-but-mandatory stop for any Massachusetts political hopeful. Elizabeth Warren, whose much-hyped academic background makes her another surefire target, will also be there. So will Joseph P. Kennedy III, the latest in his fabled family to seek public office.
Breakfast veterans say the best defense may be a good offense. “You almost have to beat them to the punch,’’ said William M. Bulger, the former Senate president who emceed the roast for years.
Representative Stephen F. Lynch gave a flavor of the incoming fire Murray can expect when the congressman joked at a St. Patrick’s Day luncheon in Quincy on Friday that the lieutenant governor was absent because he was receiving a “driver of the year’’ award from NASCAR.
Comedian Steve Sweeney, who once wrote for Vice President Joe Biden’s appearance at the roast, said Murray would be smart to start with a preemptive confession. “I’d say, ‘I know what you’re all thinking,’ and then I’d tell a joke,’’ said Sweeney.
Murray aides deny that he sees Sunday’s roast as a chance for rehabilitation, but acknowledged they have decided to embrace an opportunity to show he can be a good sport after a year that has also seen him ensnared in the controversy revolving around Michael E. McLaughlin, the highly paid former Chelsea housing executive.
“You go when you might be the subject of jokes, and you go when you might not be,’’ said Murray spokesman Scott Ferson. “If you’re an elected official, you go if you can.’’
One of those who can’t go, Governor Deval Patrick, is on vacation. Yet he would be foolhardy to think his trip to the Virgin Islands will go unmentioned.
Warren is making her debut at the roast, always a precarious position. The Democratic US Senate candidate is also walking into a blue-collar event as a Harvard professor who lives in Cambridge. Enough said.
“I didn’t think any foreigners were allowed on the ballot.’’ That’s how Bulger said he’d tweak her.
The 31-year-old Kennedy, meanwhile, is another roast rookie. He is attempting to restore the family name to Congress by running for the US House seat being vacated by Representative Barney Frank.
Sweeney said he would have Kennedy start by saying, “I’m a regular Joe.’’ Then he’d have him segue into a series of jokes feigning cluelessness about how his wealth and family connections actually make him different from all the other Joes out there.
And then there’s the Legislature, a House and Senate full of people worried about possible indictments in the state’s Probation Department hiring scandal.
They will be on the dais and amid the rows of tables at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. The event will air live on NECN, starting at 10 a.m. Sunday, and feature a performance by the Wolfe Tones, a band specializing in Irish rebel music.
Each year since former Boston mayor and Massachusetts governor James Michael Curley started the breakfast in 1936 at Dorgan’s restaurant in South Boston, there has been a fresh reservoir of material from which to draw.
But with Murray’s crash, a high-profile race between Warren and US Senator Scott Brown, former governor Mitt Romney battling to win the Republican presidential nomination, and President Obama trying to get reelected, there’s a particularly deep store this election year.
And that means a lot of people will be trying to give as good as they get. Organizers are angling to get Romney and Obama to call in and be among them.
If history is any guide, some will employ comedians like Tingle and Sweeney to help draft material. Senator Edward M. Kennedy used to call humorist Dick Flavin for lines, while current politicians tap John Tobin, a former Boston city councilor who runs Nick’s Comedy Stop.
But the common denominator for speakers, especially first-timers or those coming off a bad year, should be self-deprecation, say veterans of the roast.
Jack Hart, who hosts the breakfast by virtue of his role representing South Boston in the state Senate, said, “I think what people appreciate with a high-profile candidate is that they give it that old college try. If they fall flat, that’s OK.’’
Former governor William F. Weld first stepped onto the firing line in 1991, a Brahmin amid a heavily Irish audience.
“My family has not always had it easy,’’ Weld said. “My ancestors arrived here with nothing but the shirt on their backs - and a couple of million pounds of gold.’’
Senator John Kerry was there in 2003, when he was running for president, despite initial reports that he would skip the breakfast as he recovered from prostate cancer.
Kerry ended up arriving halfway through and alluded to his newfound Jewish heritage as he quipped, “Who said I don’t have the matzo balls to be here?’’
In 2010, Attorney General Martha Coakley wore a barn jacket after she infamously lost Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat to Brown, a Republican whose own jacket symbolizes his everyman image.
Brown has shown up with blowups of a nude Cosmopolitan centerfold for which he once posed while a model.
“It starts with Scott, and he usually has a pretty good sense of what he wants to say,’’ said Brown adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, describing the senator’s joke-writing process. “He also knows he’s going to come in for a lot of ribbing himself, but he takes it all in good stride.’’
Joseph Kennedy has a simple agenda for his first breakfast, said spokesman Kyle Sullivan.
“Joe’s gotten advice from people who have done this before, and it all boils down to three simple words: ‘Keep it short,’ ’’ said Sullivan.
Tingle said the likely targets would be wise to do one thing: laugh along with the crowd.
“People enjoy people who can laugh at themselves,’’ the comic said. “It makes them human.’’