For eight years, Ben Bernanke played the straight man as a buttoned-down, humorless central banker straight out of central casting.
For one afternoon, at least, he let loose a little and showed a few thousand financial pros that even guys who had to bear the weight of the world on their shoulders can laugh a little, too.
Bernanke spoke to a room of thousands at the Schwab IMPACT conference in Denver, a gathering of more than 2,000 investment advisors as well as another thousand or so folks who flock to the annual gathering.
As speakers at such events often do, Bernanke started off with a joke. But this wasn't dorky banker humor. He was actually funny.
He talked about sending his daughter off to college for the first time, whereupon her roommate asked her what her father did for a living.
Informed that he ran the U.S. central bank, the roommate exclaimed: "Your dad is !?"
A few other gems:
Bernanke devoted much of the speech to recounting the financial crisis. Speaking of a meeting he and former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson had with members of Congress they were trying to convince to bail out American International Group, Bernanke recalled:
"Paulson and I met with 20 leaders of the House and Senate. Paulson said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, we're about to make an $85 billion loan to AIG. Ben, please explain.'"
Asked if he saw the movie "Too Big to Fail," which was an adaptation of the book by the same name from New York Times columnist and CNBC "Squawk Box" co-anchor Andrew Ross Sorkin, Bernanke quipped, "I didn't see the move because I saw the original." (Bernanke did say he read the book, which he thought was good.)
He did, however, dine with Paul Giamatti, the actor picked to portray Bernanke in the HBO feature.
"They couldn't get George Clooney—he was busy," Bernanke joked.
Their lunch didn't focus much on the crisis, though, after Bernanke, a known baseball buff, learned who the actor's father was:
"Turned out Paul Giamatti's father, Bart Giamatti, was the commissioner of baseball. ... The whole thing degenerated into a talk about baseball."
Speaking of baseball, Bernanke had the chance once to go on the field with his favorite team, the Washington Nationals. Introduced to the team's hirsute outfielder, Jayson Werth, the player asked, "So what's the deal with QE3, anyway?" a reference to the third leg of the quantitative easing program Bernanke pioneered at the Fed.
Asked by moderator Liz Ann Sonders, Schwab's chief investment strategist, what advice Fed chairs give to each other when they are handing off the baton, Bernanke remembered the sage words his predecessor, Greenspan, told him as they stood in the Fed chambers, "When you sit at this table, always sit where you can see the clock so you know when the meeting's over."
The ritual at the Council of Economic Advisors, he related, is different: The new chair gets presented a sign that says, "in case of emergency, open the bottom drawer. When you opened the bottom drawer, there was a bottle of scotch."
Sanders asked whether Bernanke agreed with the sentiment that Washington leaders may need to return to the days when liquor flowed a little more freely and enjoyed a more collegial relationship, Bernanke replied, "It couldn't hurt."