The New York Observer, May 21, 2001

By James Verini

Carl Icahn is a very funny guy. Seriously.

Just ask anyone who was present at the Tomorrow’s Children’s Fund Investment Conference in the late afternoon on Wednesday, May 9, where the legendary arbitrageur and raider slayed the crowd in the Grand Hyatt ballroom. A few hundred suits had gathered there to pick up stock tips from a marquee lineup of speakers that included, in addition to Mr. Icahn, John Meriwether, James Cramer and Henry Blodget — all of whom had some funny things to say (notwithstanding Mr. Cramer’s completely sincere announcement that he planned to invest more of his own money in

But it was Mr. Icahn who spoke last, and best, cutting through all of the chirpy advice and desperate evocations of a coming rebound with anecdotes of corporate America’s and Wall Street’s stupidity. He has been plying that schtick for years, true — but never, it seemed, with such hilarity and improvisational brio. He was at once brash and self-effacing, studied and spontaneous — like a seasoned stand-up comic.

He arrived late, with cameramen from CNNfn on his tail, and slowly made his way to the stage, where he just began talking, off the cuff, without so much as a cue card.

“I’m not gonna tell you this stock is great, that one’s great,” he said, after which a few people hastily left the room. “I’m gonna talk a little bit about the economy, and about myself.”

He spent about a minute on the economy and then got to himself — which is what everybody wanted to hear about, anyway.

He told the story of his early years in the market: He’d made a pile playing poker in college, invested it, did well for a while until he became a broker, then lost his shirt buying stocks that he chose by eavesdropping on the older brokers — stocks they were pushing but wouldn’t themselves touch, it turned out, with a 10-foot pole.

Then the billionaire who likes to refer to himself as a “shareholder activist” went off on bankers: “I think the investment bankers are to blame [for the economy],” he said and, after a few seconds of awkward chuckles — many of these people were investment bankers, after all — added: “I don’t have to be nice to them anymore; they don’t raise money for me, even when I want them to.” The place rocked with surprised laughter.

Before long, the man who took on TWA and Texaco was on one of his favorite subjects, management: “The corporate manager is the guy who used to be president of the fraternity. He’s a good guy, you like having a drink with him, but … ”

The chief executive, he declared, is always afraid for his job, so “he’s gonna make sure the No. 2 guy is dumber than him. And he makes sure the guy under him is dumber. Eventually, you’re gonna end up with a bunch of morons.” The room exploded. “In fact, we’re not too far from that right now.”

He dug into boards: “The first thing you do when you go to a board meeting — I’ve been on a couple of boards, but they don’t invite me to too many anymore — the first thing you do is get an envelope with your check for 5,000 bucks … Then you look at charts that nobody understands. The C.E.O. looks at them; he doesn’t understand them. The C.F.O. looks; he doesn’t understand them … Then you get some more checks, and everybody says, ‘Isn’t this great?’”

After getting solid laughs for a good 20 minutes, Mr. Icahn concluded the set by telling everybody why he shorted Priceline from the get-go — a guy he knows who owns supermarkets told him that he bought his groceries from the ailing online bidding company because Priceline was dumb enough to subsidize the difference between his prices and theirs — and why he’s still shorting Conseco: They drag homeless guys off the street and offer them secondary mortgages.

Mr. Icahn absolutely killed.

He was so good, in fact, that The Observer called a number of stand-up comedy clubs to see if they’d be interested in booking him. But the responses were mixed.

“We might give him like five or six minutes,” said Peter Shapiro, a booker for Gotham Comedy Club. “Let me talk to my partner about it. Call me on Tuesday.” (Mr. Shapiro admitted, though, that he’s been wary of such spectacle acts ever since he booked Abe Hirschfeld, who bombed.)

“Does he want to do that?” asked Lucien, a booker for Comic Strip Live. “We put on lots of strange people, but he would have to prepare something that would be appropriate.”

Lucien worried that Mr. Icahn’s stories about his early career might not be right for his club’s crowd. “We tend to have the kinds of guys in the audience who would be laborers for TWA, but not that many top-line executives … You have to try to imagine how his comments would play to the stewardesses, or to the guys who clean the planes.”

Probably the least interested was Jerry, the general manager of Stand-Up New York. “We do have amateur shows,” he said.

Mr. Icahn did not return The Observer‘s calls — nor, as far as we know, did he follow up on any of the comedy clubs’ offers.