Funny Business

When you're running for President, humor is no laughing matter

As the newly anointed Democratic nominee, John Kerry is being scrutinized as never before. Republicans labor to portray him as too liberal, too weak, and too out of touch with "mainstream America" to be President—too much like the last nominee from Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis. Kerry's record on everything from Social Security to the war in Iraq is rightly debatable, but on one issue the facts are quite clear: in an age when voters prefer politicians to be funny and likable, John Kerry is neither. Here the dreaded Dukakis comparison may stick.

In the past this would not have mattered. As Presidents from Calvin Coolidge to George H.W. Bush attest, until recently a wan parliamentarian could reasonably entertain hopes of the presidency. But over the past decade the popularity of late-night comedy programs and daytime talk shows has added to the list of necessary credentials the ability to appear warm and funny on television. Although candidates have favored such appearances at least since Richard Nixon's 1968 cameo on Laugh-In, most observers trace this development to candidate Bill Clinton's 1992 saxophone performance on The Arsenio Hall Show, which came to symbolize his differences in personality and style from the first President Bush. Comedy shows have since become a political rite of passage. A recent Pew Research Center study concluded that they are "increasingly becoming regular sources of news for younger Americans, and are beginning to rival mainstream news outlets."

To politicians generally, but especially to those viewed as distant or aloof, this is a fraught development, because success in virtually every facet of their job depends on decorum, discretion, and a rigorous lack of spontaneity—traits that leave them ill equipped to be funny. "What's interesting and disheartening," says Ben Karlin, an executive producer of Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, "is that politicians are the most stage-managed and image-conscious guests we see, even more so than actors and celebrities. They're trained to exhibit a certain range of behaviors: serious, compassionate, practical. Comedy isn't one of them."

In practical terms being funny can pose a challenge on a par with some of the knottier policy issues a candidate might encounter. And so, as they would on an important policy matter, politicians of both parties rely on expert advisers—in this case the network of comedy writers in Washington and Hollywood, who collectively account for most of what politicians utter that is funny. Just as with lobbyists and government officials, there is a continual cross-pollination of political consultants and professional joke writers—people like Jon Macks, who managed Democratic campaigns before leaving to write for Jay Leno on The Tonight Show (he still writes occasional remarks for politicians), and Phil Rosenthal, the creator of the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, who scripted some of Bill Clinton's funniest moments.

In political Washington, where appearance matters above all else, the desire to display a polished wit is nearly universal, extending even to mundane private-sector types such as lobbyists and trade-association chairs. Tales abound of heated competition to secure the best writers for important humor events such as the annual Gridiron Club dinner and the White House Correspondents' Dinner, and also of the grim sense of purpose many top names apply to mastering the task of delivering jokes. No one betrays any awareness of irony in all this. As Jeff Nussbaum, a rising star among Democratic speechwriters, explains, "In Washington there is no more serious business than being funny."

Perhaps only in the annals of political comedy does Michael Dukakis loom as a larger-than-life figure. Renowned among joke writers as the least intentionally funny politician in memory, he offers an object lesson in the danger of ignoring one's public persona. Dukakis believed that humor had little relevance to politics. Mark Katz, whose new memoir, Clinton & Me, chronicles his time as a political humorist, began by writing jokes for Dukakis's 1988 presidential campaign—a job, he says, that was analogous to being staff photographer for The Wall Street Journal. Recent political history offers a procession of other humorless automatons who crashed at least in part because voters deemed them too dull, stiff, or creepy: Phil Gramm, Steve Forbes, Al Gore, and Gray Davis come to mind.

Actual political humor—that is, humor delivered by politicians—is tricky, owing not just to politicians' natural handicaps but also to the delicate matter of what can and cannot be said. For although much of what's funny derives from its unexpectedness, there is always the risk of offending key constituencies.

"The biggest challenge in writing humor," says Kenneth Baer, a former speechwriter for Gore, "is, everything that's very funny, you can't make a joke about. Scandals, sex, sleaze—it's all off limits." In the words of the Gridiron Club, which has hosted Presidents since Benjamin Harrison, humor should "singe but not burn."

For politicians to succeed, humor must also be carefully calibrated to humanize them, which means that it must almost always be self-deprecating. "Humor has to flow upward," Jon Macks explains. "It's okay to make fun of your boss, but if you're the guy on top, it's not okay to make jokes about people beneath you, because you look mean—which means your jokes have to come at your own expense." John Edwards, needled for his boyish good looks, has succeeded with this ("I know what you're thinking: 'He's even better-looking in person'"); as a candidate and as President, George W. Bush, for whom self-deprecation is hardly an impulse, has also submitted to necessity (quoting Garrison Keillor's crack that "George Bush's lips are where words go to die"). Yet some of the most talented politicians—most famously, the Clintons—bridle at being the target of their own jokes, to the frustration of Katz and the assortment of other comedy writers who supply them. (In fairness, the Clintons may believe that enough jokes come at their expense already: a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs determined that over a ten-year period encompassing all of his presidency, Bill Clinton was the subject of 3,722 jokes on The Tonight Show alone, more than any other figure.)

Kerry's penchant for oratory and statesmanlike posturing would seem to make him Dukakis's heir apparent. Though he has had material provided to him by a former writer for the comedian Bill Maher, and now draws on a phalanx of sitcom writers, little evidence of their handiwork has manifested itself. The trouble for Kerry is that the road to the White House runs through the gauntlet of late-night shows, which presents an opportunity—"If you're going to beat back the charge that you're aloof, here's the perfect venue to do it," Baer says—but also a risk. During the primaries Kerry's lack of humor didn't hurt him; his vaunted "electability" was enough to draw the support of Democrats eager to depose President Bush. But now he faces the considerable task of wooing the center—voters who by definition are not slavering to remove Bush—and this means displaying the warm and funny side that he has assiduously hidden throughout his public career.

The task of jolting life into Kerry with anything less than a defibrillator will fall to his ghostwriters. In order to better understand the difficulties he faces, I set out to experience them for myself. Running for President was out of the question. But as a political reporter, I'm occasionally expected to appear on television and speak knowledgeably about current events without being a bore—a reasonable enough approximation. And just as Kerry seeks to impress specific constituencies during his appearances (undecideds, independents, disillusioned Republicans), I seek to impress important constituencies of my own (college buddies, ex-girlfriends, potential employers). So, like Kerry, I enlisted the help of a staff writer for HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher—in my case Jay Jaroch, an old friend who for several weeks last year volunteered to write material for me each time I was to be a guest.

If my experience is any indication, there is hope for even someone as humor-impaired as Kerry. Having one's own comedy writer is like taking a performance-enhancing drug: it provides that which nature has not. When MSNBC booked me to debate what was then still an open question—whether weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq—I was able to point out that it was "starting to look like Al Capone's vault over there," reducing the show's host, Pat Buchanan, to giggles. Later, when Donald Rumsfeld was at a low point over chaos in Iraq, I came supplied with the line "The only guy less popular at the moment is the judge who struck down the telemarketers' 'Do Not Call' list." Same effect. And to poke fun at Kerry's habit of shamelessly invoking his Vietnam service at every opportunity, when discussion turned to his recent duck-hunting trip, my lines called for me to say, "Every time Kerry shoots a duck, he yells, 'Medic!'"

The effect was immediate and unmistakable. After my initial MSNBC appearance, the producer emerged from her control room to introduce herself and insist that I return. I did so the following week, and once again my material slayed. Invitations to appear on this show and others began to pick up—a result I can credit only to my professional help. Having a comedy writer is a transformative experience, and not just in front of the camera. Being armed with a steady supply of funny lines imparts a suffusive confidence with wide-ranging effects on one's personality—what I imagine it must be like for a bald person suddenly to don a particularly convincing toupee.

Whether Kerry can pull it off remains to be seen. Last November he made a disastrous appearance on The Tonight Show, where he was the butt of jokes by a sock puppet named Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. But history suggests that even the worst cases can succeed. Richard Nixon's political career was thought to be destroyed by his tirade against the media in 1962, after he was defeated for governor of California. His famous Laugh-In appearance six years later was part of an image-softening campaign to introduce "the new Nixon" during his 1968 presidential run. In hindsight this sounds like a bad joke. But Nixon won the presidency, at least in part because he learned how to deliver a good one.