Policy punchlines

Isaac Orr honed his communication skills at comedy clubs.

As a young staffer for the Wisconsin State Senate, Isaac Orr had a front-row seat for the political war that erupted Governor Scott Walker’s 2011 historic effort to close a $3.6 billion budget deficit by renegotiating concessions in public-sector contracts, a negotiation that one day even resulted with Democratic members of the Senate escaping to Illinois to deny Republicans the quorum they needed to convene.

Orr, 29, is Center of the American Experiment’s newest policy fellow.

“I was just getting used to the capitol, and then all of a sudden, we have all these people that are protesting and sleeping in the capitol,” he recalls. “Nobody went home for weeks. It was a mess, but it was also kind of cool to be there. It was like a Forrest Gump moment.”

Inspired by that experience, he did what you’d expect of an up-and-coming policy analyst: He went on the road for four years as a part-time standup comedian. Splitting his time between the Senate and the road, he took his 20 minutes of material and toured the country, including clubs in Portland, Seattle, New York, Phoenix, and Atlanta.

He thinks that experience has helped him along his prolific path as an analyst. “If you can find the right analogies in public policy that get people to understand more complex things, they just know it on an intuitive level,” he says. “I try to bring enough good analogies to the table so people can understand something without having to know all the details.”

Orr admits that even his early attraction to public policy grew from comedy, as he and his father would watch Saturday Night Live from their dairy farm in Waupaca, Wisconsin. “Part of it was learning enough about politics to get those jokes and understand why they were funny. It was something my dad and were able to bond over.”

After retiring from comedy, he eventually finagled a full-time research fellowship telecommuting from his home in Minneapolis to the Heartland Institute, a prestigious think tank located near Chicago.

At Heartland, he became a prolific contributor, giving speeches, producing policy videos and writing papers and op-eds.

His first assignment at American Experiment will be about energy policy, immediately tackling a project about mining due for release in July. He’s eager for others. At one point in his tenure at Heartland, he says, he wrote four 30- plus page policy papers in five weeks. “I like being a workhorse.”