Plenty of politicians contradict themselves, but Jimmy Tingle at least is forthright about it. As a citizen and taxpayer, he always supported universal healthcare. Then he became a business owner, with 10 employees demanding coverage. “What are we, in Russia?” he wondered, before realizing in exasperation, “there are parts of me trying to overthrow myself.”
The Cambridge comedian will give his perspective on the primary season on Sunday, Jan. 8, at the Concord Auditorium.
“I’m thrilled to do a show called Jimmy Tingle for President: The Funniest Campaign in History,” he says in his best candidate voice.
Some of his ideas make a lot of sense once you stop chuckling. Tingle thinks that prisoners, rather than lifting weights and becoming more dangerous, should pedal stationary bicycles and feed power into the grid. He also has a unique idea for an immigrant debit card to tally what a citizen gives to and takes from American society.
Rather than mar Cape Cod, he’d put windmills in the breakdown lane of the Mass Pike — anyone who’s changed a tire there knows how hard the draft blows when cars speed by. “That way, we’ll be using energy from foreign fuel in cars to reduce our dependency on foreign fuel,” Tingle says. Genius.
Along with his stand-up act, the evening will feature a screening of Jimmy Tingle’s American Dream. The Vincent Straggas-directed documentary chronicles lessons learned by the comic while operating a theater in his hometown for five years.
“It’s also about the larger issues of the American Dream, the social things involved,” Tingle says.
The film includes interviews with performers and public figures giving their take on the American Dream over the course of seven years. Tingle talks with Clinton cabinet secretary Robert Reich, commentator Neil Cavuto and Mort Sahl, considered by many the dean of political comics.
The late Robert Altman figures prominently; the two met during the 2004 Democratic convention, when the director’s son filmed Janeane Garofalo performing in Tingle’s Off Broadway Theatre in Somerville as part of his Unconventional Comedy series.
“That was a special conversation,” Tingle says of Altman, who told him, “I don’t know of a better place than America, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way.”
Historian Howard Zinn, a friend dating back to Tingle’s days working in his son Jeff Zinn’s theater company in Wellfleet, Mass., in the early 1990s, offers a passionate perspective. The two spoke on camera in summer 2009; Zinn died in January 2010. “People are fundamentally decent and have common sense,” Zinn says at one point, though he allowed that he didn’t have a lot of hope for the short term.
Tingle talks at length with observers on both sides of the political spectrum. Sean Hannity told him he believes anything is possible in this country — “You can’t fail here,” he says. Comedian Bobcat Golthwaite notes, “It says it’s the pursuit of happiness — that’s not a guarantee.”
The latter is a lesson Tingle learned all too well when his business folded.
“It was a great education,” he says. The theater began as a way for his friends and him to perform, but ended up teaching him about economic interdependence. “Two hundred people at a show are out on the square, adding to the economic vitality of the whole neighborhood — that was an unintended consequence. And being a boss — I never thought of myself as an economic stimulus program.”
When the Off Broadway closed in 2007, Tingle pursued another dream, attending Harvard University. He earned a master’s degree from the Kennedy School of Government in 2010 and was asked to speak at graduation. His commencement address caps the film, and in many ways sums up his philosophy of the American Dream: “All of us are here today because someone or something helped us,” he says. “Now it’s our job to help others. That’s education.”
Of course, Tingle’s talent is for turning serious subjects into comic fodder. He calls his mock campaign Humor for Humanity — Humor and Helping, Humor and Healing, Humor and Hope. “HAH, HAH, HAH! That’s what they chant at my rallies,” he says.
But delivering a message along with laughs requires delicate balance.
“Getting to the soul of the issue and then making it funny without preaching, that’s tricky,” Tingle says. “Woody Allen once said, ‘If I make people laugh that’s great, if I make them think and laugh that’s the ultimate, but if I only make them think I’m in trouble.’ A statement alone can be enough if you’re a politician, but if you’re a comic at some point you’ve got to get to the punch line, and you have to do it so people who don’t agree with you will find it humorous. That’s the challenge.”