In Washington, the best free shows are the stand-ups, the television reporters who appear outside government office buildings to tell the story of the day's news. They first appear in the middle of the afternoon and linger until 6 or sometimes 7 p.m. Their job is to reduce the day's events to a short piece of theater that all may view and understand. For a stage they have a corner or sidewalk or a stretch of muddy lawn, so positioned that the Capitol or the White House (or in moments of desperation) their own office hovers over their left shoulder. In the rain, in the blinding sun, and in the ever-shifting winds, they must dramatize the day's news with 15 little sentences.
As a theatrical genre, the stand-up is fairly limited. Since we don't allow them to reenact the news or mimic the decisionmakers, these poor performers have only one model that they can follow, the role of the energetic and insightful reporter, the dogged writer who can discover hidden facts and ask the questions that need to be asked. This character borrows heavily from the classic comedy "The Front Page," and on busy days, one can face a row of would-be Cary Grants or Rosalind Russells, delivering their lines on the east Capitol lawn.
Just the other afternoon, I caught a fairly skilled performance when I passed by the Federal Court House - lately, the grand center of Washington's stand-ups. Because a special prosecutor has been calling witnesses to report to a grand jury, the plaza in front of the building has become something akin to a the site of a summer rock 'n' roll festival. There are tents protecting microphone stands, cables duct-taped to the sidewalk, and port-a-potties strewn carefully out of sight of the cameras.
As I approached this site, a junior reporter from a major network jumped from an arriving car and dashed to his place beneath a tent. An assistant producer thrust a script in his hands and the reporter glanced at it while he took a long distance call from the show's anchor. Satisfied with the questions that he would be asked, he threw his coat to the ground, rolled up one shirt sleeve and took a buff of powder in the face. With only seconds before his report was to be broadcast, he loosened his collar and tie, pulled the knot slightly to the right and grabbed a pencil for a prop. It was not a bad performance. His answers to the anchor's questions were beautifully sincere. This was a man who had spent hours practicing "Yes, Peter" and "It remains to be seen, Jane."
Poor stand-ups fall short of greatness for the same reason that actors can wallow in mediocrity. The reporter can fail to follow the script, misunderstand the subplots of the story, or inject so much personality into the presentation that the viewers fail to learn anything about the issue at hand. Watching such stand-ups evokes the same sad embarrassment that one feels upon hearing an untrained actress declaim the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet." The poetry is lost in a jumble of words, the touching premonition of the story's end cannot be found.
THE best stand-up that I've witnessed was, in fact, a balcony scene that occurred one June morning outside the Supreme Court. To get the best picture of the court for a stand-up, the camera must be low and the speaker high. On the morning in question, a young woman tottered on two stacked plastic crates in her stockinged feet. She told the world the court would shortly go into recess for the year. The wind pushed her hair. The morning sun glinted off passing cars into her eyes. Beads of sweat gathered at the point of her chin. In spite of these challenges, she delivered a few cursory lines as if they were a great verse about the civic rhythm of our lives. A modern Juliet gracefully acted.
One Washington editor claimed that journalists write the first rough drafts of history. Perhaps when history has come to be written, the authors will mention that these odd people, who must go outside to speak to a television camera, were the street poets of our days.
* David Alan Grier is a professor and director of the honors program at George Washington University in Washington.