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Mr. Norquist likens most political humor to hitting like-minded audiences over the head with a baseball bat. He frowns on vulgar jokes for the same reason. A fan of deadpan deliveries, he detests the elbow-in-the-ribs gag style epitomized by “Gilligan’s Island.”

Mr. Norquist takes comedy surprisingly seriously. He attributes his interest to friend and veteran Washington journalist Howard Mortman, who once invited him to the D.C. Improv’s amateur night.

“How do I get on the list?” Mr. Norquist asked after watching Mr. Mortman perform stand-up.

“Come up with 15 jokes, half of which work, and I’ll get you on stage,” Mr. Mortman replied.

Mr. Norquist went to work, scribbling jokes on 3x5 index cards and ordering tapes of young comedians to study. He realized the craft was similar to public speaking: Audiences are fickle, easily unimpressed. Preparation is crucial.

Last year, the Steamboat Institute asked Mr. Norquist to forgo his usual policy talk and instead give a half-hour comedy speech. Flattered, he eagerly agreed — then spent months nervously preparing his material, polishing gags in hotel rooms and on airplane flights.

By contrast, Mr. Norquist invited Joe Wurzelbacher “Joe the Plumber” — to participate in the 2009 Washington contest. Mr. Wurzelbacherneither wrote nor practiced his routine.

Unlike Mr. Norquist, he bombed.

“People who don’t do comedy usually don’t fully respect it,” Mr. Thurston said. “There’s a lot of rigor involved. You get these people who have their staffs write hacky jokes, and then they get on stage and read a litany of unemotional, inhuman tropes. But Grover is a real student. If he weren’t trying to destroy America through an obscene tax standard, he could be a great comedian.”

Disappointingly humorous

During a summer broadcast of “The Colbert Report,” Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert presented Mr. Norquist with a seriocomic dilemma.

Terrorists have kidnapped America’s grandmothers, stashed them underground, dipped them in honey and threatened to unleash fire ants — unless the wealthiest Americans agree to pay slightly more in taxes.

“Do we increase the tax rate?” Mr. Colbert asked. “Or do we let our grandmothers die by ant bite?”

“I think we console ourselves with the fact that we have pictures,” Mr. Norquist said.

Washington has a well-deserved reputation for being an unfunny place, largely because humor risks offense: Mr. Norquist’s “Colbert Report” crack elicited audience gasps, the last sound politicians want to hear.

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