Respond to this Article January/February 2004

Mirth of a Nation

How Bill Clinton learned to tell jokes on himself--and get the last laugh.

By Mark Katz

He opened the door and I jumped to my feet. Watching the president of the United States enter the room is always a startling sight. Of course, the sight he encountered might have caught him off-guard too: a nervous guy in a tuxedo secluded in a dimly-lit holding room with a stack of pages in one hand and an egg timer in the other. Although this was the fifth humor speech I had prepared for President Bill Clinton since he'd taken office, we were about to have our very first one-on-one meeting. The occasion was the remarks he was about to give to the Alfalfa Club, the least known of the four annual Washington humor dinners that take place from January through April--collectively known as the "Silly Season." And on this snowy night in January of 1995, I was there to fulfill the duties of what was probably the oddest job description in town: a presidential joke writer, an adjunct member of the White House speechwriting staff on retainer by way of the Democratic National Committee.

Clinton & Me
by Mark Katz
Miramax Books, $22.00

The Alfalfa dinner came just four days after Clinton's third State of the Union address. Already somewhat infamous for his too-long orations, this had been Clinton's longest SOTU yet--one hour and twenty-one minutes--a fact pundits were using as a metaphor for an undisciplined, flailing presidency. In the news cycles that followed the State of the Union, everyone from David Brinkley to David Letterman had something to say about its oppressive length. Of all the facts crammed into his oration, only one resonated the following morning: This speech had been far too long. Yet the White House refused to concede that characterization. Every authorized spokesperson in the building was quick to point out that overnight polling revealed that approval ratings of the speech had come in at 83 percent.

That week, my job was to find the comic premise that would allow the president to score points with his Alfalfa audience--a fraternity of corporate CEOs, federal power brokers, and other establishment stalwarts. My answer was an egg timer. The stage directions of the draft I had sent to the president the night before instructed him to approach the podium, pull the timer from his pocket, set it to five minutes and greet the audience. That was sure to start the room laughing while also setting up a better joke to come: Once the timer expired, he was to add as many minutes as he wanted, as often as he wanted. It was a simple idea made funnier by juxtaposing a kitschy kitchen device with a presidential podium brimming with gravitas. But Bill Clinton's first full sentence to me that evening torpedoed the speech's very premise: "You can put that egg timer away," he said, glaring at the device I clasped in my hand.

"No egg timer?" I asked. I hoped he was joking.
"The egg timer's a joke on my State of the Union, right?" He seemed only about 83 percent sure.
"Yes it is," I said, ignoring for the moment what else it could possibly refer to.
"Well, forget it," he said. "They've been on me for four days straight about that speech."
"That's exactly why you should do it!" I blurted, in an assertive tone of voice that even surprised me a little.

As I saw it, this joke traded away nothing (conceding the obvious) for something (approving laughter and applause). Yet he saw it differently. The reason he was not inclined to engage in charming, self-effacing humor on this subject was that he was simply not willing to concede the point. "Eighty three percent of the American people thought I gave a helluva speech," he insisted. "Only here inside the bubble did the reporters have trouble sitting still for more than twenty-five minutes."

The speech he went on to give later that night substituted for gentle, self-directed humor a hostile drive-by diatribe aimed at his critics. The room generously offered feigned laughter whenever it sensed that something he said was intended as a joke. Otherwise, the response was a collective, incredulous gape. Only when the room's response had been reduced to near silence did Clinton reach for the object behind the In-Case-of-Emergency-Break-Glass sign in his mind. He pulled the egg timer from his pocket and placed it on the podium, eliciting one of the few authentic laughs of the night.

Self-deprecating humor comes naturally to only the most skillful practitioners of public power and your average Jew. At that moment in his presidency, the benefits of self-directed jokes were not yet evident to Bill Clinton. As the designated White House in-house humorist, it was my job to guide him through Washington's odd humor rituals with my best and funniest suggestions for the things he might say. Somewhere in the course of my career that bridged the world of humor and politics, I had absorbed the first rule of successful presidential mirth-making. From Teddy Roosevelt ("Speak softly and carry a big stick.") to Ronald Reagan ("I am not worried about the deficit. It is big enough to take care of itself."), the most popular presidents have used wit to steal the ammunition from their critics as the best way to defend themselves. My personal presidential humor muse has always been John Kennedy, a man with a hyper-ironic and recklessly self-effacing wit. In 1958, then-Senator Kennedy was already leading the pack for the Democratic presidential nomination, but many in Washington still dismissed him as the brash son of a wealthy and unscrupulous man, a father too eager to bankroll his son's upcoming bid for the White House. Speaking at the Capitol Hilton before an audience of such skeptics, Kennedy held up what he said was a telegram from his "generous daddy" and read it aloud: "Jack, Don't spend one dime more than is necessary. I'll be damned if I am going to pay for a landslide." With a wink and a smile, John Kennedy had the audacity to tell a joke that, out of the mouth of another, would have been nothing less than devastating. This was my idea of a profile in courage.

Granted, not everyone is as naturally charming as JFK--or was this the work of his master wordsmith Ted Sorenson? (Ask not.) But these lessons are still there to be learned for those who stand upon the bully pulpit.

Bill Clinton is as smart as any person who's held the office, perfectly capable of generating witticism and winning over a crowd. But when being tortured endlessly by Beltway critics, even he needed a little help. Clinton had become accustomed to using humor as a barbed weapon; I tried to coax out of him something new--not Kennedy's entirely self-deprecating voice, nor his old, slightly venomous brand of humor, but a new style of self-effacing wit with a bit of a bite. In the end, Clinton did it his way: self-deprecating jibes, but with an elbow to his attackers, too.

Enough jokes on me

My first assignment for the newly inaugurated President Clinton was to draft a page of jokes for his upcoming appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 1993. Most of my suggested jokes were on the topic of his bumpy first hundred days in office. He leafed through my draft, his face unlit with enthusiasm. "Enough jokes on me," he said. "We need to do more jokes on all of them," meaning the media. "I thought this was a press dinner where I get to make fun of the press."

I realized then that we had arrived at a fundamental dividing line. I took for granted that the endgame of these ritual humor dinners was to ingratiate oneself to the audience--in this case, the press--and that the speaker should be his own primary target. From what I could tell, this did not come naturally to Bill Clinton. I had the feeling that he couldn't understand why we had handed him pages of self-deprecating jokes to tell to the people who deprecate him for a living. To him, it must have seemed like appeasing Torquemada by placing yourself on the rack until you confess.

This was also the symptom of the political culture shock of going from Little Rock to Washington. Clinton was raised in a political culture where gentle, self-effacing humor was all but unheard of, and political humor dinners featured a much meaner brand of funny. In Arkansas, I was told by people who'd know, humor is a stick that you beat other people up with. Clinton kept in his head a running list of the personal hypocrisies, professional double standards, specific unfair shots, and falsehoods uttered against him. He wanted to recite them all, and if they were expressed in the form of a joke, well, that was fine, too. But left to his own devices, the defining tone of his speech to the Washington press corps would be, "Katy, bar the door!"

A year later, when I helped prepare speeches for Clinton's upcoming appearances at the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner and the White House Correspondents Dinner, the Whitewater scandal had dominated the newspapers for two weeks. Within the White House, I had by then become something of a humor evangelist, espousing to anyone who would listen a variant of the Twelve Step philosophy: things are only as bad as the stuff you can't joke about. I was eager to play high-stakes humor, and all of my instincts told me that humor's biggest payoff can come at the hour of maximum danger. Maybe on the long list of reasons why Whitewater was not Watergate was that this guy, the president, could stand up in front of three thousand rabid reporters and show the courage to laugh at the very idea.

The night before the speech, we sent a draft to the president; the night after that, a tuxedo-clad Bill Clinton took the podium to address the same Washington journalists who had recently made "Whitewater" a household word and opened with a geographic version of a time-honored line: "I am delighted to be here tonight. And if you believe that, I have some land in northwest Arkansas I'd like to sell you."

But having taken his self-administered medicine, Clinton then clearly savored the opportunity to deliver a broadside at those who had spent the last few months poring over his financial records: "I don't want to alarm any of you, but it's three days before April 15, and most of you have spent more time with my taxes than your own." And then in gently taunting, singsong voice, he said, "Many happy returns!"

The room--and Clinton--both enjoyed the speech, partly in relief that the obvious subtext of his words was not going to go unspoken. Clinton had fashioned a sort of self-directed punch line that also had the barbs he loved. As a humorist, he'd begun to find his voice, one which the coming years would give him a lot more opportunities to perfect.

The president of Karjahistan

When I arrived in DC in the spring of 1999, it was as if I were walking onto the set of "Geraldo!"--a place where anything can happen because it already has. A humor speech on the heels of an impeachment trial? Sure, bring it on! In contrast to the enervating effects of the sordid scandal itself, the aftermath of impeachment felt liberating, clarifying, energizing! Yes, our guy had conducted his private life appallingly and then proceeded to lie about it under oath. But the first impeachment trial since that of Andrew Johnson mostly left me fuming about those who had administered that oath--loathsome hypocrites eager to put someone else's hand on the Bible. Watching the Republican legislators and their allied prosecutors trump Clinton's reckless personal behavior with ruthless constitutional brinksmanship reminded me why I had signed up with my team in the first place. (Perhaps I had subconsciously processed the vices of JFK and Nixon and made my choice a long time ago.) But having made it through to the end of this ordeal--for which he was at least half to blame--Bill Clinton still needed to prove he could joke about it if he was to get past it.

My first conversation with head speechwriter Michael Waldman that spring set the tone for what was to come. After a few minutes spent hashing out the challenges of this political science-fiction scenario, we agreed that we had more latitude than usual: "What are they going to do," he said, "impeach us?"

That year, Waldman wanted to team me up with Jeff Shesol, a relative newcomer to the permanent speechwriting staff but one with his own talent for humor. Jeff's OEOB office became the Comedy War Room's new headquarters, my new seat the couch across from his desk. Our first day working together had us trying to come up with an ideal opening line at a press dinner that was an all-but-formal surrender of the Monica Media Wars. What might the president say to those at whom he had wagged his finger for more than a year that would demonstrate his contrition while somehow preserving his dignity? Hmmmm. That was a tough one. But before the day was over, we'd written an opening:

"Good evening. I want to thank you for your invitation to come have dinner with two thousand members of the Washington press corps. Now, I realize this has been a very serious matter. Let's face it: If the Senate vote had gone the other way, I wouldn't be here speaking to you tonight I demand a recount!"

Jeff and I were taken aback by the joke's admission that the president would have preferred removal from office to this moment of profound humility. What could be more contrite than that? But the more pertinent question was, would Clinton do that joke? Would it even live to see the next draft? Later that day, Waldman gave us an encouraging response, repeating what would become a mantra in the Comedy War Room from that week on: "What are they going to do--impeach us?"

In the frenzy of our free-for-all, we came upon another ambitious idea that would not, in fact, get Clinton re-impeached: a parody of a transparent White House ploy, employed frequently during the past 14 months to restrain the press corps. As Clinton's renewed interest in foreign affairs had grown over the past year or so, so too had the number of joint press appearances with world leaders. The White House clung to the faint hope that the press corps would be less aggressive about asking the president compromising questions as he stood on the international stage.

Our version of this strategy had Clinton calling to the stage the fictional chief executive of a fictional nation, who would provide cover from the press corps on this night as well. Within an hour of hatching the premise, we had fused stray syllables together to create both our world leader's name (Shoreb Arnsvat) and his sovereign state (Karjakistan). The laughter we generated in the process brought speechwriters writing less-fun remarks into our den. One of them, Ted Widmer, was a foreign affairs specialist on the staff of the National Security Council, and he loved the idea as much as we did. But he offered this word of caution: Making jokes at the expense of foreign nations--even fictional ones--is tricky business. He took a draft back with him to the NSC to run it by some policy wonks. Jeff and I went back to work.

Ted returned later with good news and bad. Concerned that our parody might hit a little too close to home in places abroad, the NSC had decided that we could not use the name "Karjakistan," as it was a pretty obvious slur on the lawlessness of the fledgling breakaway republics of the former Soviet Union. Also, the national security staff was running a linguistic check on the name of our leader to see if it contained any unintentional ethnic or regional ties. ("Shoreb Arnsvat" could be a name right out of the Macedonian phone book, for all we knew.) I was heartened by the NSC's diligence but also quietly enthralled by the idea of writing a joke that set off an international incident.

Ted mentioned one more red-flag issue that needed to be settled: In another section of the speech, a joke linked the radical right wing of the U.S. House of Representatives to the radical-right theocracy of Afghanistan:
"I was going to make jokes about the House Republicans tonight, about the managers. It wouldn't be fair; they're not here to defend themselves. They're all at the Taliban Correspondents' Association Dinner."

Ted planned to submit this joke directly to Sandy Berger, the White House national security advisor, for approval. (How cool was that?) This was a threshold I had never crossed in my many years inside the White House joke-vetting process.

The next morning, Ted returned with bad news: "Sandy killed the Taliban joke."
Jeff and I emitted loud, stereophonic groans.
"He didn't think it was funny," Ted explained.
"Say that again?" I asked.
"He didn't like it. He said he didn't think it was funny."
"Ted, hold on," I said in disbelief. "We need some ground rules here: The national security advisor can kill any joke he likes on the grounds that it compromises national security. But he can't kill a joke because he doesn't think it's funny."

The authoritative tone of my voice belied the fact that as the White House joke writer, I was more than a few rungs below the national security advisor on the organizational chart. Nevertheless, Ted was sympathetic to my plea and agreed to take the joke back to his boss.

On Ted's next trip back to see us, we learned the unlikely outcome of this unlikely showdown: Sandy Berger blinked. (To his credit, Berger didn't trump up a national security concern to kill a joke that had simply failed to make him laugh.) Ted also had this news to report from the Situation Room: Berger had approved our substitute for Karjakistan, "Karjakador." With the name of his country approved at the highest levels, all Shoreb Arnsvat needed was someone to portray him the following Thursday. Jeff and I got back to writing jokes. Sandy Berger went back to planning the NATO air campaign in Kosovo that would commence three days later.

The weekend prior to the back-to-back speeches found me holed up in my hotel room, racking my brain for all the jokes and premises I could produce to bounce off Jeff come Monday morning. An important part of the process was figuring out which jokes and premises belonged in which speech, as there were significant distinctions between the two. The Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner was an event that aired live on C-SPAN, and the best handful of jokes would likely be showcased on TV the next day; the Gridiron was an off-the-record event, and its jokes echoed only inside the Beltway by way of a Monday morning Washington Post Style section piece. A joke that you'd want to be aired on the "Today Show" might not be the same one you write with Mary McGrory in mind.

For nearly a week after Waldman and the other West Wing honchos had signed off on the Shoreb Arnsvat foreign-leader bit, we had no one lined up to play the role. Jeff, speechwriter Jordan Tamagni, and I spent a fair amount of time throwing around names (Dana Carvey! Martin Short! Roberto Benigni!). But as time went on, we got more desperate (Jerry Van Dyke! The guy who played Balki from "Perfect Strangers"! John Hart from Intergovernmental Affairs!) No one was available or had yet signed on.

Around 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Jordan walked into Jeff's office holding the Style section of The Washington Post, which had a feature story on its front page about a local theater director and actor whose work had been well-applauded in D.C. for the past few years. The photograph showed Nick Olcott to be a burly man with a neatly groomed beard, and his impressive credentials gave us reason to believe he would be a better Shoreb than John Hart from Intergovernmental Affairs. Jordan tracked Olcott down and asked him to come to the White House. Two hours later, he was in Jordan's office auditioning for the three of us. Two days later, "Shoreb" --wearing a black suit decorated with a red sash and bright medals--got huge laughs as he regaled an actual world leader in an invented language like a long-lost friend.

Former White House aide George Stephanopoulos's then upcoming book played another, even more important role in the president's speech. It gave us the idea for a memoir theme--a joke-breeding ground that Jeff and I found too fertile to ignore. For the better part of two days, we took turns sitting at his computer, trying our hand at a comic preview of the forthcoming Clinton memoirs that would become the premise of his Gridiron speech.

"Page 134: "Election night, 1994. A tense and difficult night. In the family quarters of the residence, Hillary and I watched the returns with a few close friends and advisors. Sperling paced nervously. Begala stared sullenly into space while Leon Panetta bit his nails. 'Bite your own nails, Leon,' Begala snapped.
"My own temper flared at the notion of Newt wielding the Speaker's gavel. 'Damn it,' I said, snapping a pretzel stick in my clenched fist. It was a display of anger that startled everyone present, even myself.
"I took a deep breath. I counted to ten. By the time I hit six, word of my outburst had reached CNN. But all of a sudden I knew exactly what to do. I saw it all very clearly, the path to yet another comeback. 'Panetta,' I said, 'take a memo. I want you to book Newt Gingrich a seat on Air Force One soon, in the back of the plane.'
"Page 319: "I was sitting at my desk reinventing government one day when [pollster] Mark Penn walked into the Oval Office. He was waving a sheet of paper. 'Mr. President, the overnight polls say. . .' I cut him off: 'The polls? Why are you always bringing me polls?' At my strong urging, Mark spent the next six months as an AmeriCorps volunteer.
"Now let me read you this from the last chapter, the chapter on 1998. Here it is: "1998. What a year. We saved the surplus for Social Security. Hillary and I took historic trips to China and Africa. I signed the second balanced budget in a row. And in the November election, the president's party gained seats in the House of Representatives for the first time in a second-term off-year election since 1822."
"Now, that wasn't an excerpt. That was the chapter on 1998.

Two days later, on the dais of the Saturday-night Gridiron dinner, a white-tied Clinton eagerly presented the poster-sized covers of his would-be memoirs and read the passages that were its supposed "excerpts." He also made some pointed jokes at the expense of those who had devoted all of their energy to removing him from office.

"I won't kid you. This was an awful year. It was a year I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy No, I take that back."

The president was as relaxed as I'd ever seen him, fearless in his self-mockery and brazen in his attitude toward his well-known foes. Smart guy that he is, Bill Clinton probably saw the more-daring-than-usual jokes on the page and thought to himself: What are they going to do--impeach me?

**********

Sidebar: WHITE HOUSE OPERATOR

When brainstorming humor speeches, every sentence in every article I read enters my brain as an impulse stimulus, a potential setup line that dares my gray matter to spit back a punch line. Late one night as I was cramming jokes for Clinton's first White House Correspondents Dinner, I came across an article about the hundred day accomplishments of previous presidents, wherein it was mentioned parenthetically that America's ninth president, William Henry Harrison, died on his thirty-second day in office. With a little subtraction, and the addition of context, a joke for Clinton's upcoming speech was born: "I'm not doing so bad. I mean, at this point in his administration, William Henry Harrison had been dead for sixty-eight days!"

The Monday following the speech, sometime before noon, I was still damp from a late-morning shower when the telephone rang.

Hello?"
"White House operator calling for Mark Katz."
"This is Mark Katz."
"Please hold for the president of the United States . . ."

Fisher. It had to be Fisher. Dating back to our days together in junior high, my friend Fisher occasionally subjected me to his expertly executed telephone hoaxes. With a tidbit of information and plausible impersonation, he had played me for the fool a hundred times before. That is why as I stood there in my bath towel, I was not predisposed to believe that I was actually holding for the president of the United States. I pressed the phone to my ear and prepared to analyze the voice that would greet me after my stay on hold. My brain was on high alert.

"Hello, Mark?"
BRAIN.- Not enough syllables to make a conclusive identification. Proceed with EXTREME caution!!!
"Hello."
"Mark, you did great work helping out on the jokes for the White House Correspondents Dinner. You did a terrific job and I just wanted to call and thank you again."
BRAIN: Holy shit! If this is Fisher, it's his best work yet. WARNING: The next words you say may be used to mock you for the rest of your life.
"You bet, sir."

I was determined to maintain my reticence until I achieved a higher degree of certainty. My silence compelled the caller to move the conversation forward.
"I really loved that William Henry Harrison joke. That one still cracks me up. . . . already been dead for sixty-eight days! Ha!"
BRAIN. Identity confirmed! This is the third time the president has mentioned that he loved the William Henry Harrison joke. YOU ARE TALKING TO THE PRESIDENT! REPEAT: YOU ARE TALKING TO THE PRESIDENT!!!
Now I was excited.
"You got a great laugh on that one, Mr. President." It was the first time in the conversation I dared address him with that, but there were plenty more to come.

This, I would learn, is a common phenomenon among people who find themselves in a conversation with a president. They interject the words "Mr. President" into nearly every sentence, as if afflicted with a very proper strain of Tourette's syndrome. There is just something about talking to the president that makes you punctuate your sentences with the words "Mr. President." Not because he wants to hear it-he knows very well who he is--but because you just love to hear yourself say it. After all, when is the next time you'll get to say "Mr. President" in a sentence? A co-op board meeting? More than that, interjecting those words adds import to any sentence you might say. Compare these sentences:
A. Cheese sandwiches are very tasty.
B. Cheese sandwiches are very tasty, Mr. President.

This condition is only made worse by the fact that speaking to the president can also make you talkative to the point of babbling. This happens for much the same reason: you are not really talking to the president, you are listening to yourself talking to the president. Your brain, so absorbed in listening to the conversation, becomes a cognitive bystander engaged in an internal monologue that goes something like this:
I am talking to the president.
I am talking to the president.
I just said something to the president.
The president is responding to something I just said.

For the rest of my life, I will be able to preface what I just said to the president with the words, ' As I once said to the president ' "
Does anyone here remember what I said to the president? I'm gonna need it for when I tell people this story.
The president stopped talking. It is my turn to say something. Now I am going to listen to what I am about to say to the president. I wonder what it will be?
As it turned out, here's what I said to the president next: "You know what Mel Brooks says, Mr. President: 'Comedy equals tragedy plus time.'"
He had no response to that. Very few people quote Mel Brooks to the president. I explained further.
"What I mean, Mr. President, is that joke probably would not have gone over too well if Millard Fillmore said it."
"Millard Fillmore completed the term of Zachary Taylor," he said. "John Tyler succeeded William Henry Harrison. But I think I know what you mean . . ."
He'd given me more credit for my wrong reference than I deserved. I didn't know that Millard Fillmore had completed the term of anyone--I had just pulled out the name of a funny-sounding, obscure, mid-nineteenth century president. At this point, he must have remembered that he had called to thank me, not to administer a pop quiz.
"Anyway, I just loved that William Henry Harrison joke."

The president's tone let me know that this conversation was winding down. He encouraged me to fax him jokes if ever I had an idea for something funny he might say. A few seconds later, he was saying good-bye. Before it was over, I got to hear myself say it one last time:

"Thank you for calling, Mr. President."

Mark Katz is a former humor speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. From the book Clinton & Me by Mark Katz, to be published by Miramax Books in Feb. 2004. Copyright 2004 Mark Katz. All rights reserved. www.clintonandme.com.


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