Yeah, yeah, he’s heard it before: Always knew you were smart. The work proves that. Always knew you were a smart ass. The work, a quarter century of mouthing off in public and getting paid for it, proves that too. But now Boston comedian Jimmy Tingle has the sheepskin to prove the former, and we have the video of his Harvard commencement address last summer to prove the latter. Yup, no joke, Jimmy Tingle, a Harvard grad, with a master’s degree in public administration. Which sounds way too boring to be a bit and, again, we have the videotape to prove it. So, dude, what’s up? You gonna be a city administrator somewhere? Now that’s funny. Picture it: Jimmy Tingle standing up at a City Council meeting, giving budget recommendations. Or, wait a second, is he running for office? For real this time? A serious run for the funny man? Not like the comedic bid for the Oval Office documented on 2008’s “Humor for Humanity,” Tingle’s last album. Well, as the old Trickster used to say, let me be perfectly clear about that ... Which, by the way, the comedian is not doing.
Tingle talks about using entertainment and comedy for greater ends, about becoming more involved in public policy and social change. But, no, he says, somewhat convincingly, seeing how there’s no punch line on the horizon, he’s not running for office. Not yet, anyhow, Tingle says, sounding as cagey as a politician on the make. “I don’t think so, anyhow” he says. “I never say ‘never.’ I’m thinking about it ... I’m not sure.” But, however much Tingle cares to dance around the subject, about what it it all means, big picture, his recent academic success will have immediate benefits for Newburyport fans, because it “more than qualifies me to play at the Firehouse,” he says. Which he will do this Friday.
Tingle has been on the front lines of the Boston comedy scene for more than 30 years. He’s been a commentator on “60 Minutes II,” in the Andy Rooney spot. He’s been a contributor and satirist for MS-NBC. He’s been the American correspondent for David Frost’s “The Strategic Humor Initiative show.” He operated his own 200-seat theater in Somerville, producing more than 200 shows during its five-year run, which ended in 2007. He’s the force behind “The American Dream,” a 60-minute documentary/deconstruction of the core concept of the mythology of this country, success, with interviews with well-known troublemakers ranging from Howard Zinn to Sean Hannity to Bobcat Goldthwaite. He’s no stranger to the Port, having headlined at benefits for Theater in the Open and Exit Dance Theater.
The comedian started thinking about doing “something different” in 2007, not long after closing his theater. He landed a spot in the Kennedy School’s public administration program, which, the brochures say, is designed to prepare the “next generation of leaders,” again raising warning signs about a Tingle run for office. The program is heavy on the economics, combining analytical and quantitative strategies with policy and practice — and pretty deep water for a guy who had not seen the inside of a classroom, aside from stages of college campuses as a comedian, since 1977, when he nabbed a bachelor’s degree in history from Southeastern Massachusetts University. Now, Tingle’s a townie. He grew up in Cambridge, in the shadow of Harvard. “I was always intrigued by it. Never thought I would attend, though,” he says. “That ship sailed after the fourth grade.”
Still, he was familiar with the campus, having used it as a staging area to steal bicycles back in the ‘60s, when he was just a young punk, “uniting students, faculty and law enforcement” during a divisive time at the campus, as Tingle joked during his commencement address. Going back to school after all this time was “a big adjustment,” he says. “I needed a lot of help, especially with the math stuff.” Still, he liked the whole deal of going back to school, especially giving his big mouth a bit of a break. “Sitting in class, listening, not saying what you think for at least a year,” he says, “there was something very appealing about that.”
So, what should Port audiences expect from the new, improved and, at least in theory, smarter Tingle? No talk about quantitative mathematics, but a show the comedian says will engage and connect, combining autobiographical material with social and political comedy/commentary — and, he says, “in the end, a hopefully positive and relatively clean show.” Yes, despite everything that’s happening in the world, he manages to stay optimistic. “I see hope for all the things we’re facing,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, you always have to be optimistic. We don’t need doom and gloom,” he says. “We need to stay positive. We need Jimmy Tingle for president.” Whoops, there he goes again. “Seriously, we need a new way of seeing things,a new way of engaging the self,” he says. “You can do anything, we can do anything if we really want to.”
JUST THE FACTS, MAN — Jimmy Tingle performs at 8 p.m., March 26 at the Firehouse. Tickets are $25, or $22 for members of the Society for the Development of the Arts and Humanities, the nonprofit organization that manages the Firehouse For more information, check out the venue’s web or call 978.462.7336.