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The Laughter Track

By Megan Kinneyn | Sep. 2, 2007

Law Office Management

Sep. 2, 2007

The Laughter Track

Not all lawyers know how to be funny. But did you hear the one about the four lawyers who make a living at it? By Anayat Durrani

By Anayat Durrani
      Lawyer jokes aside, attorneys can be funny. These four make it their business to go for laughs.
      DAN R. WHITE
      "If they laugh, you're a comedian," George Burns once observed. "If they smile, you're a humorist. And if they do neither, you're a singer."
      Dan R. White thinks of himself as a humorist. "I did very little comedy-club work, where you stand up in front of a smoke-filled room full of drunk people," he says. Rather, it was a book he wrote called The Official Lawyer's Handbook that launched his career. Published in 1983, it was meant to be a helpful?but irreverent?guide for young lawyers and law students, and it quickly became a best seller. He followed it up with several other books, including White's Law Dictionary, What Lawyers Do and How to Make Them Work For You, and Trials and Tribulations: Appealing Legal Humor. He also gave talks, appearing at everything from graduations to bar conventions.
      "My speeches were definitely intended to be funny," he says. "God knows they conveyed no useful information."
      White graduated from Columbia Law School in 1979, but after doing litigation for eight years he realized that he was never cut out to be a lawyer. It was "the end of an error," he deadpans.
      He speculates that lawyers make good comics for several reasons, among them: They're skilled with words; the ones who worked in big firms are used to being abused; and getting booed in clubs isn't half as painful as reading legal briefs all day.
      In fact, White acknowledges that as a veteran humorist he's become quite a pro at detaching himself from an unresponsive or even hostile crowd. "I'll remind myself that I'll never see any of these people again. I'll also pretend that it didn't happen."
      Sean Carter says he's "America's foremost legal humorist." He also says he's the best looking.
      Carter got his first gigs on the rubber-chicken circuit, speaking before local Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions Club gatherings. Before that, he spent a decade practicing corporate law, representing such clients as GNC, Experian, the Boston Beer Company, and J. Crew. But it wasn't a good fit. In fact, as early as entering Harvard Law School, Carter felt it was all a big mistake, and after graduating he spent three years trying to make his mark in financial services and insurance before giving up and going into legal practice.
      Finally, in 2002 he decided to become a full-time humorist, inspired in part by Dan White's The Official Lawyer's Handbook. He had been doing stand-up comedy in his spare time, often making no more than $25 a night, most if not all of which he would end up spending on drinks. But things started to turn around for him when he decided to specialize in law-related humor. "In comedy clubs, there are lots of funny people," he reflects. "But in my niche, I'm better than Jerry Seinfeld?and at legal functions I make a lot more than 25 bucks."
      "My rowdiest crowd was a group of estate planning attorneys," he recalls. "I was talking about downloading music, and I said, 'He who is without Napster cast the first stone.' That's when they started throwing things at me from their tables.
      "The weird part," he adds, "was they loved the routine. But an open bar does strange things to people."
      In addition to the food throwers he encounters, Carter says, he's also had to contend with female fans attempting to seduce him. ("It happened four times. But I'm not counting.") He insists, though, that each time he declined their gracious offers. "My wife and I live in a community property state," he explains. "Those women were attractive, but not as attractive as my house."
      Carter is the author of If It Does Not Fit, Must You Acquit?: Your Humorous Guide to the Law. He also has a syndicated legal humor column that has appeared in newspapers across the country, including the Los Angeles Times.
      Not all lawyers have to leave law to practice comedy. In Los Angeles, Kenny Kahn is a successful criminal defense lawyer by day and a comedian by night.
      "It's not easy being a lawyer," he tells his audiences. "I'm also single, and that makes it worse. To get a date, I have to lie and say I'm a used-car salesman."
      One of his worst onstage moments came when he was performing in Las Vegas at what was then the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Hotel and Casino, in front of an audience of older women. "It was a sea of blue hair," he recalls. "The silence was deafening. And at a certain point, they began to exit in droves, pushing their walkers, muttering, 'That's the worst thing I've ever heard in my life.' "
      When Kahn works such famous nightspots as the Comedy Store and the Laugh Factory in L.A., he appears onstage with briefcase in hand, wearing a dark, double-breasted suit. "Why do they call it the California Penal Code?" he asks his audiences. "Because it was written by a bunch of dickheads." (The elderly women in Vegas didn't laugh at that one either.)
      Kahn graduated from UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law in 1965 and has been practicing criminal defense ever since. One of his most famous clients was Larry Flynt, the founder of Hustler magazine.
      "For me personally, comedy is a powerful antidote to what is basically a humorless profession," he says, turning serious for a moment. In fact, Kahn got into comedy soon after a mentally ill client plunged an ice pick into Kahn's chest in a Torrance courtroom. Kahn saw it as a wake-up call. "Mortality is only a moment away," he says. "After I came close to death, I decided I better not put off what I really want to do. And comedy has always been a fantasy of mine."
      Despite his success, however, Kahn is no stranger to adversity: He was raised in an East Los Angeles housing project by parents who were con artists and heroin addicts. In 2005 he published a darkly comedic memoir about his childhood experiences called The Carny Kid: Survival of a Young Thief.
      The youngest of three kids, Jeff Kreisler says he got funny to "exact revenge" on his siblings, who had a habit of stuffing him into a drawer. Since then he's performed onstage with such legends as Dick Gregory and Robin Williams.
      Kreisler does what he calls "political absurdism," a mix of "commentary, social insight, and classically unpredictable weirdness." Much of his material comes straight from Fox News, and some of it is just off the wall. "A grand jury issued a subpoena over Costco's options practice," he notes. "It was 200,000 pages long and came with a barrel of mayonnaise."
      "The world's a pretty chaotic, often harsh place," Kreisler observes. "I find that by embracing the absurdity of it all, I can lead a more peaceful, less-confused existence."
      Kreisler earned a law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law, then moved to San Francisco. He worked briefly as a copyright lawyer and in the San Francisco District Attorney's office. But Kreisler says the law in practice did not live up to his naive ideals. He began performing stand-up comedy at a couple of local nightclubs, and now he performs regularly at colleges and various events in his critically acclaimed, politically charged "Comedy Against Evil" tour.
      Kreisler hasn't entirely left the law, though. In fact, when he has spare time on his hands, he'll do things like courthouse records searches and document reviews.
      Kreisler is also the author of Get Rich Cheating, a forthcoming book about corporate crime.
      Four Lawyers Walk Into a Bar...
      Dan R. White
      Age: 54
      Base: Los Angeles
      Law school: Columbia
      Legal specialty: Litigation
      Most profound advice ever received: "Rinsing twice-as suggested on shampoo bottles-is completely unnecessary."
      On being a lawyer: "The rotten apples-who probably don't make up more than 90 percent-are ruining it for the rest of us."
      On law as comedy: "Nothing you can make up is funnier that the real thing."
      Favorite lawyer joke: "Why have scientists begun to do experiments on lawyers? Because they were getting too emotionally attached to the rats."
      Sean Carter
      Age: 40
      Base: Mesa, Arizona
      Law School: Harvard
      Legal specialty: Corporate law
      Advice to lawyers thinking about going into comedy: "Find a specific audience and stick to it."
      On the difference between comedians and humorists: "For a comedian, it's important to say funny things. On the other hand, a humorist says important things in a funny way. Not surprisingly, humorists make a lot more money."
      Kenny Kahn
      Age: 66
      Base: Los Angeles
      Law school: UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall
      Legal specialty: Criminal defense
      Hardest thing about being a comic: "Accepting rejection. That's the hardest thing about life, too."
      Advice to lawyers thinking about going into comedy: "Think about another career, something like brain surgery. There's also a big future in trash collection."
      Favorite lawyer joke: "What do you call a lawyer with an IQ of 47? 'Your Honor'!"
      Jeff Kreisler
      Age: 33
      Base: New York ("... but I'm still a good person")
      Law school: University of Virginia
      Legal specialty: None
      Worst moment onstage: "In Allentown, Pennsylvania, a woman threw a full bottle of beer at me. Spilled all over a shirt I really liked."
      Advice to lawyers thinking about going into comedy: "Don't. Unless you're prepared to give it years and years."
      Most valuable lesson learned: "People aren't dumb. They're just rarely given a reason to be smart."
      Anayat Durrani ( is a Los Angeles?based freelance writer.

Megan Kinneyn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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