The Men Who Make Obama Funny
Right now, Washington is busily gearing up for tomorrow night's White House Correspondents Dinner. And no one is busier that the political comedy writers whose job it is to make the politicians seem funny. I've always had a soft spot/fascination with these guys (and they're all guys) and even wrote about some of them in this Atlantic article a few years ago. What sparked that piece was my amazement that anyone could make John Kerry funny--because let's be honest, that guy is to funny what matter is to antimatter. But sure enough, they pulled it off.
The piece was an excuse to dive into a particularly fun Washington subculture, and one of the things I learned was how comedic speeches like the one Obama will deliver tomorrow night come together. It's a pretty elaborate process. Unlike most presidential speeches, this one draws on the (uncredited) work of a lot of people outside the administration, from late-night television writers to particularly funny political operatives--sort of a political-comedy pro-am that offers psychic rewards, but little else. Politicians are like the Huffington Post--they don't pay comedy writers anything, and instead rely on "the sheer joy of writing for President/Senator/Secretary X" in order to make the sale.
Some early morning reporting yielded these insights on how Obama's speech will come together. Favreau sent an email with a list of topics he'd like to hit on to a large group of funny people in the White House orbit--friends, professional comedy writers, and the White House's own trio of in-house jokesters (Jon Lovett, Tommy Vietor, and David Axelrod, who is reputed to be very funny). This group will send in dozens, if not hundreds, of jokes and gags that the White House team will sift and tweak into what eventually becomes the president's speech.
It's not necessarily the funniest jokes that make the cut. One veteran Washington joke writer described the process of writing for the president like this: "The rule is, Walk as close to the line as you possible can without going over it--singe, but don't burn." It's also important that the humor not seem mean-spirited or cruel, since it will be delivered by the most powerful man on the planet. (George W. Bush is reputed to have had trouble with this--and then got singed himself when he tried it). The veteran writer advises politicians, "Humor is a powerful weapon, but in order to earn the right to wield it against others, you need to wield it again yourself first." The classic example comes from Al Gore, who poked fun at his image as a stiff by agreeing to be wheeled to the podium on a hand truck.
Along with anonymity, the heart break of the Washington jokester is when good material winds up on the cutting room floor. I asked around for jokes that didn't make the cut for last year's WHCD speech and particularly liked these two:
"We're trying to housebreak Bo [the White House dog]. Because the last thing Tim Geithner needs is someone else pissing on him."
"Washington is debating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The problem with these commissions is that if you want people to tell the truth, you really have to put the screws to them. (Pause.) Dick Cheney loved that one!"