James Carville in the HBO show "K Street."
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msnbc.com
updated 10/10/2003 5:31:24 AM ET 2003-10-10T09:31:24

I like HBO’s “K Street.” I know that’s a controversial position. The reviews have been mixed and the on-the-street chatter has been rough. But I admit it — I’ve fallen for the reality TV show. As a political junkie, lifelong Washingtonian, and an avid HBO enthusiast, “K Street” works for me.

OF COURSE, I’m not your prototypical focus groupie. All the inside stories, plot lines, jargon, and personalities that warm my heart might not be appreciated in, say, Nebraska. But I wouldn’t understand much about Topeka, either. In my squarely inside-the-Beltway household, the show clicks and each episode leaves me curious for the next offering of lobby life.

But more than what it’s done to stir my passion, “K Street” has performed a public good for Washington. It’s uprooted the D.C. scene. The “A” list, the “in” crowd, the pecking order — they’ll never be same. It’s no longer enough to get one’s caricature painted on The Palm wall, or get invited to join Dan Snyder in his Redskins owners box, or be associated with a charity trying to cure a horrible ailment or disfigurement, or get threatened in the mail with bioterror. Now, in order to really prove your insider, top-of-the-heap credentials, you must merit a cameo appearance or mention on “K Street.”

Good. It’s time to shake things up here. “K Street” is the forest fire that’s burning down the old to grow the new. We’ll see the fresh harvest soon.

But how do you fashion the most realistic portrayal ever about Washington into a consumer-friendly program for the mass audience? “K Street’s” producers and consultants are trying mightily to make it happen. I’d like to offer one suggestion — comedy.

“K Street” is not humorless. It already has funny elements — there’s the mysterious associate, the presumably lesbian subplot, subtly funny dialogue and silence, and the comically tense interplay between Mary Matalin and James Carville.

But the show should do more than create funny situations. It needs to explore Washington’s humor industry.

ENDEARING ABILITY

Unlike any other city, Washington has a great and endearing ability to laugh at itself. Not just be the butt of a joke — like L.A. or New York or Cleveland. They have it easy. In Washington we actually like to tell the jokes about ourselves.

But only a handful of Washington powerbrokers — the “K Street” crowd — are truly funny. Instead, most wannabe funny folk rely on a handful of political joke writers. And consistent with the “K Street” ethos, these are handsomely compensated political joke writers.

In D.C., comedy writers make money supplying material for rip-roaring roasts, charming after-dinner remarks, gruff but lovable emcee gigs at award ceremonies, musical skits for journalists, and other comedy cotillions.

Lucrative joke writing is a fascinating but underreported part of Washington life. But why would an HBO audience be interested? Because the HBO audience appreciates sophisticated, experimental comedy. You see that with its funny shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Sex and the City.” And with its dramas — both “Six Feet Under” and “The Sopranos” have a hysterical edge. And then there’s the granddaddy of them all, “The Larry Sanders Show,” which hilariously explored the lives of comedy writers.

LOTS OF MATERIAL

I’m convinced “K Street” can do the same. Why? Because the material already exists in Washington. We saw that in the first episode where Carville supplies Howard Dean with a debate joke that ends with the can’t-miss punch line of Trent Lott. But there’s so much more to strip mine. Add a hot shot, highly-priced joke writer to the Carville-Matalin shop, follow the clients to the events, then watch how politicians use — and mangle — their material. It’s a real-life experience, it happens all the time on K Street, and it will be, in one word, hilarious.

“K Street” is shot in an improv style. Heck, why not film at the DC Improv? It’s one block north of K Street.

Howard Mortman, a former editor and senior columnist for National Journal’s Hotline, is a producer for “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” Tune into “Hardball” at 7 p.m. ET, M-F, exclusively on MSNBC cable.

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