Though Jimmy Tingle has long made biting political humor a staple of his stand-up routines, he insists his dive into Massachusetts politics is anything but comic relief.
The Cambridge-born comedian and social activist, who returned to school and earned a master's degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, raised eyebrows with his recent announcement that he would run for lieutenant governor, a job with limited visibility and few official responsibilities.
"Initially a lot of people might think it's a joke or whatever, but I'm serious," Tingle, a Democrat, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
He's not the first to go from seeking laughs to seeking votes — Democrat Al Franken navigated from "Saturday Night Live" to the U.S. Senate. But Tingle's candidacy comes at a time when comedians in general appear to be exerting greater influence on political discourse. Late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel's emotional opposition to Republican attempts to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama's health care law is but one recent example.
Tingle, 62, said running for office was a decision long in the making and not an effort to start a trend with other comics.
"I've been doing social and political humor for 30 years," he explained. "I'd like to go to the next level and see if I can actually be involved and affect social change on a personal level."
Tingle's credits include appearances on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" and his own HBO comedy special. He was a regular contributor on "60 Minutes II," a spinoff of the venerable news show that ran on CBS from 1999-2005, filling a commentator role similar to that of Andy Rooney on the original program. (Full disclosure: Tingle has previously contributed to WBUR's opinion and editorials blog, Cognoscenti.)
Tingle graduated from Harvard in 2010 and was a commencement speaker that year, reflecting on growing up in a working-class neighborhood in the shadows of the prestigious university.
"By the eighth grade, our whole neighborhood had their eye set on Harvard, not so much for scholarships but because it was an excellent place to steal bicycles," he joked during the speech.
In truth, he never clipped a bike from Harvard Yard, said Tingle, but as a young man there were "alcohol-related" run-ins with the law, including stops for drunken driving and public drinking. After several childhood friends died or went to jail, he checked into rehab and has been sober since 1987.
Ensuring that others have access to substance abuse treatment was among his motivations for seeking public office, he said.
Tingle is the second Democrat to announce for lieutenant governor, a constitutional office with few prescribed duties apart from assuming the governor's office in the event of a vacancy — which has in fact occurred three times over the past 50 years.
Republican Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito has focused on the significant though decidedly unglamorous task of state-municipal relations, as did her Democratic predecessor Tim Murray.
The other Democratic candidate, Quentin Palfrey, is little known but unlike Tingle has considerable experience in government. He was a senior White House adviser for science and technology in Barack Obama's administration and earlier headed the health care division in the state attorney general's office.
Palfrey said he welcomed Tingle to the race.
"We will have a good conversation about progressive issues," he said.
Candidates for lieutenant governor run independently in the state primary, but in tandem with their party's gubernatorial nominee in the general election. Democrats running for governor include former Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez, environmental activist Robert Massie, and Newton Mayor Setti Warren.
The eventual Democratic ticket will likely be hard-pressed to unseat incumbent Gov. Charlie Baker, a moderate Republican who polls show to be highly popular with voters in one of the nation's bluest states.
Tingle, with little fanfare, established a campaign committee in papers filed last month with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. He laughed about a call he soon received from a reporter for The Boston Globe, asking why he'd ever do such a thing.
"You've got a great life, Jimmy," he recalled the puzzled journalist saying.
Convincing voters his intentions are genuine is challenging, he acknowledges. After all, he once headlined a satirical one-man show called "Jimmy Tingle for President: The Funniest Campaign in History."
This time, he insists, "it's not a comedy show."