"I like finding the jokes," Durst says by phone from his San Francisco office. "I like that enforced deadline."
The jokes like finding him, too. Bill Clinton was in the audience for one of Durst's recent shows, and the senior George Bush was in attendance at a benefit Durst headlined before the last election. With some exceptions -- say, Alan Keyes or Russell Crowe -- public figures don't just expect to be ribbed; they're usually willing to lend a hand or an erectile dysfunction. (It's not politicians who don't understand this balance, Durst says. "It's the spouses.")
Like the politicians whose reliably self-serving antics provide Durst with some of his best material, the comic is a cottage industry reliant on promotion and recognition. He leases an office in the expensive Bay Area and shares the space with someone willing to answer the phone while he travels. Durst's Web site includes enthusiastic recommendations from business leaders and events coordinators who have hired him for private gigs. The self-proclaimed bipartisan ("Partisans lie to the press and believe what they read," Durst says) has written breezy but politically savvy columns for the Working Assets long-distance company's Web site and for Mother Jones magazine.
"I'm an observer now much more than a stirrer-upper," Durst says. "I try to translate the language of hypocrisy." He would have plenty to decipher even if he read one newspaper rather than the six delivered to him every morning.
When he began performing in 1974, Nixon had just resigned, the Vietnam war was ending and Durst's prop was a newspaper; he took one onstage with him. "I thought everyone read the paper. My dad read four or five a day. And anyway, I couldn't do relationship humor because I didn't have a lot of dates," Durst says.
"You could tell the good guys from the bad guys by their clothes and haircuts," he remembers of that era. "When you were at a comedy club, you weren't getting the people committed to Nixon. I was preaching to the converted. Now it's not so easy. Everybody's become media-manipulated. What people want is authenticity."
So Durst tries to be authentically funny -- making an audience laugh "out loud, on purpose, against their will," as he puts it.
"You can't make people think, but you can make them think that their opinions are valid, that they do know enough," Durst says. "Some political comedians who are much smarter than I am can't stand that their audience doesn't know what's on page seven of The New York Times that day. My primary responsibility is to make people laugh. But I'm different from Leno or Letterman, because I get to work out my material. I'm not Macy's or Kmart. I'm a boutique. I hand-sew my tailoring."