Satirists tub-thump on the speech circuit

Not everyone would deem the lecture circuit the appropriate showcase for comedy. However, groups from the Junior League in Redding, Pa., to the National Sweeteners Assn. in Palm Beach to arbitrageurs on Wall Street to inquiring minds at college campuses across the nation pay top dollar to be titillated by such political satirists as Al Franken, Michael Moore, Christopher Buckley and P.J. O’Rourke.

In today’s largely apolitical climate, satirists might be considered among the comedy fringe. As speakers, they’re expected to deliver more than the usual set-up/punch line brand of humor normally associated with stand-up. “Satirists look at the way things are and make fun of everything. It is more of a story, with a perspective. They make people think about things,” explains Greater Talent Network president Don Epstein, who arranges gigs for these and many other speakers. “People have a fascination of satire. It taps into our Mark Twain, Will Rogers heritage.”

According to Epstein, there is a huge demand for political satirists on the speech circuit. To prove his point, Epstein’s company has been thriving for 15 years. “Corporate America is looking for information in an intelligent and humorous way, that is easily digestible,” says Epstein. “After a full day of a conference, they want levity but insight.”

Epstein, who reps bestselling authors, industry individuals, heads of companies, celebrities and sports figures, says he looks for clients who are insightful, have a lot to say in an engaging way and are incredibly good speakers.

P.J. O’Rourke was one of the first people Epstein approached 15 years ago to tap this niche market. “I stumbled into it,” says O’Rourke, a journalist for Rolling Stone magazine and author of such New York Times bestsellers as “Parliament of Whores,” “Give War a Chance” and “All the Trouble in the World.” When O’Rourke started with National Lampoon 25 years ago as a junior editor, one of his duties was speaking pro bono at other college campuses as a promotional device for the publication. “Everyone hated doing it,” says O’Rourke. “I undertook it willingly because I was too junior.” As National Lampoon’s reputation swelled, the colleges began paying for the privilege of having its editors speak on their campus.

After O’Rourke’s departure from the magazine, it was a natural segue for him to take his show on the road. “I really was one of (Epstein’s) first customers,” O’Rourke says. “Initially, it was just podunky colleges for little money. Now, it is mostly business people.”

For pretty big money. Although the speakers declined to discuss their financial arrangements, Epstein says they can range from $5,000 to $40,000 per gig.

O’Rourke drafted author Chris Buckley, who is the editor of the quarterly Forbes; FYI, and has a humor column in the New Yorker. As it turns out, Buckley was following in the footsteps of his father, William F. Buckley. “I grew up with a guy who made his living this way,” says Buckley, who — true to his conservative lineage — spent two years in the White House as a speech writer for Vice President George Bush.

“I’d see my dad trudging off to put food on our table. I used to go with him occasionally,” he says. “He always knocked ’em dead. Everyone always came away with a genuine emotional experience. I saw what was involved.”

The speeches themselves run the gamut from topical elections to economics.

For O’Rourke, they tend to be associated with his books. “It builds sales for fiction writers and poets. It is very, very hard to make a living as a writer. I have what I refer to as a three-legged stool: magazine articles, books and speeches. If I didn’t have all three, I wouldn’t make a comfortable living. I’m almost 50 and I don’t want to live in a garret.”

O’Rourke does 20 to 25 speeches in a presidential election year, and about half that in other years, although Epstein says O’Rourke could be working 365 days a year if he wanted. The lifespan of the basic structure of a speech, O’Rourke says, is about two years with major modifications once a month.

Buckley admits his current speech is “fast losing its shelf life” because it was a comic chronology of the 1996 presidential campaign. “It worked well and I’m damned sorry to see it go,” he reflects. His next speech will be titled something along the lines of “The Fridge to the 21st Century: A comic chronology of the Clinton Administration.”

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