A funny thing happened on the way to the Pa. debate …

The first gubernatorial debate may not be for another month, but Pennsylvania’s candidates for governor will both be trying their hand at stand-up comedy at a pair of nonpartisan charity fundraisers this week.

The Toms will take to the stage for two Candidates’ Comedy Nights. Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and his Democratic challenger Tom Wolf are featured performers at both shows, one in Pittsburgh on Wednesday and the other in Philadelphia on Thursday.

Preparing a strong three minutes is hard for anyone. Finding a tough but trusted critic to help woodshed material can be particularly challenging for politicians in an election year.

“You have to go beyond the people who are paid to adore you,” said Stu Bykofsky, Philadelphia Daily News columnist and founder of the Philadelphia Candidates’ Comedy Night, now on its 24th year.

Bykofsky’s event inspired the Pittsburgh show, which was launched by Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Max Baer in 2008.

Having two political comedy nights, usually on the same week, has created a slight booking challenge for organizers.

“I make it my business to make sure I recruit everybody as soon as the primary results are in,” said Bykofsky. “I start getting on the phone to line them up for Philadelphia.”

This year marks Wolf’s debut at either event. Corbett performed in both shows in 2010, when he ran for governor.

Cumberland County District Attorney Dave Freed put together a routine for the Philadelphia show in 2012, during his campaign for Pennsylvania attorney general.

Freed’s advice: know your audience, don’t talk too much about your own campaign, and feel free to pick on former governors. Or, feel free to pick on one former Democratic governor.

“Ed Rendell is comedy gold,” said Freed. “I could have done 10 minutes on just him. So it’s always good to throw in a couple Rendell jokes.”

The Pittsburgh show raises money for Allegheny County human services. The Philadelphia event proceeds go to Variety, a charity serving children with disabilities.

Bykofsky, as an organizer, has become an expert in buttonholing the buttonholers – getting politicians to leave their comfort zone for a night of amateur stand-up. He likes to remind them that the comedy club audience is more forgiving than a debate audience.

“Most of the time, they’re going to be on your side,” Bykofsky said. “When they turn against you (is) if you go on for three, four, five, six minutes, and you’re terrible, and you don’t shut up and sit down. Then … you might get boos. You might.”

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