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Patrick Hruby

Funny or Die

Experts speak out on the Presidential Peril of the White House Correspondent's Dinner

Congratulations to Jimmy Kimmel. And to President Obama's joke writers. They survived Saturday night's White House Correspondents' Dinner, which is no easy task.

As I recently wrote in the Washington Times, the annual "nerd prom" can be something of a comedic snake pit, a potential source of raw materials for America's leading domestic product: manufactured partisan umbrage. (See Colbert, Stephen and Sykes, Wanda).

Herein, a few more thoughts on the dinner from the people I interviewed:

Howard Mortman, C-SPAN Communications Director: It's probably far more uncomforatble to hear the crickets in that kind of enviornment than anywre else. Famous comedians come in having never peformed in that kind of gathering. It’s hard to tell what people will laugh at. You‘re a great comedian whose material kills in New York and Hollywood, but might end up bombing on Connecticut Avenue.

Caren Bohan, Reuters journalist and White House Correspondents' Association president: Playing to an audience that includes politicians, journalists and high-profile Hollywood celebrities can be very challenging.

Rich Little, comedian: [After performing in 2008], I ran into several people who came to me and said, "we haven't seen you in years." I told them I just did the dinner. They said, "I was just there. We didn’t see you." This is absolutely true. They never turned around. People use the evening for socializing. They quiet down for the president but the rest of the time they're talking. It's a tough, tough, tough crowd.

Elayne Boosler, comedian: I was concerned that if I bombed I'd be audited forever or held up at customs for the rest of my life.

Mark Katz, joke writer for President Clinton: Remember the White House coffees [fundraising scandal]? One year, they wouldn’t let me do jokes that had the word coffee in it. First thing they said. So I came up with a routine that was quite literally all about coffee. Juan Valdez. Starbucks. And that’s how we got to talk about it. We talked about the beverage. You have to find a way to do it.

The real power of humor is to say the things that never otherwise get said. For the President, the jokes should have a kind of a brazen quality. If you do it right the audience response is like, "oh my God, I can’t believe he put a pinky on that topic." To ignore it is to let the audience think you live in a parallel universe where the problem doesn't exist.

Landon Parvin, joke writer for Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush: You don’t want the speaker to get the speech too far in advance. I would take a draft to President Bush on Monday. Wouldn’t give it to the staff. We would meet in the Oval Office. He would read it cold. I could get a better sense if the jokes worked or not, if he was comfortable with them or not. From there, take out the lines that either he doesn't like or I don't like, then come back on Wednesday with replacement lines and do a little rehearsal. We used to also have a short rehearsal in the [Presidential] residence right before going over to the dinner on Saturday night.
Katz:I would show up at the White House with about two weeks to do before the speech, read everything, talk to everyone, the president's speechwriters and the smart, funny people who I called the "comedy war room." It was a group effort. Clinton was among the people working on it. The real challgne was to write a speech that at the end felt like the president wrote himself.

I remember he would learn a lot in the process about what was going on between the White House and the press corps. It was kind of a big briefing for him. [Laughs].

Parvin:I never try to convince a speaker to do a joke. It will show in the delivery if they don't believe in it. They have to think it’s funny.

The worst thing is if a committee gets involved. Everyone has a different sense of humor -- and if everyone takes out one joke they don’t like, you’re left with not very much. The Bush White House was great about that. They didn’t vet these things and send them around. Usually the Chief of Staff and the head of communications would be in readings. And that was it.
Katz: Here's an acid test for any joke: imagine somone you actively dislike politically -- but you’re sitting in the ballroom or watching on TV and experience the cognitive dissonance of, "oh my God, I kind of like this guy." The highest glory you can achieve is to have someone watch their enemy and realize, "damn, he’s good." That's winning. It's potentially more winning than, you know, just about other form of communication.

Little: The more problems a politician gets into, the more jokes come out. My god, we had a field day with Richard Nixon, and with Bill Clinton, too. The Secret Service scandal is great material for comics, because sex is a great topic. Each Secret Serviceman had four prostitutes. They were cheaper by the dozen. Two for one sale. So many jokes. If Clinton was perisident what would he have said? Save the ugly one for me?

Of course, if Clinton was sitting right there, I probably wouldn't say that.

Parvin: I thnk the audience wants good-naturedness. They don’t want a president to get up there and run down his opponent or his critics. They’re looking for a good time. If something is too heavy-handed, it just doen’t work with that crowd.

Little:I remember Hubert Humphrey used to see me at the Sands Hotel. He thought becuse he was sitting out there, I was being easy on thim. He came back the next night in disguise. The maitre d' phoned and told me, "Humphrey is wearing a silly hat and some dark glasses." He really did that! And Dan Quayle used to say to me, "I think that you knew I was out there, because all the dumb jokes wen to Gerald Ford." I said, "of course not." But of course, he was right. Gerald Ford knew how to spell potato.

Mike Larsen, comedy writer and former Congressional communications director: You tend to get a lot of laughs just off references, shared experience jokes. You can always joke about John Boehner's tan, the president's golf game, his use of the teleprompter.

The bar is lower for the President. He just has to be a little bit funny for everyone to say, "oh, that's great, we have a funny president." But for the comics, it can be every frustrating, because the safe areas are the ones that have been worked over.

Katz:Jokes operate along a risk-reward ratio, risk nothing you’ll get no reward, take a risk and the reward is greater. But it can backfire. The big backfire story of the 21st Century is the weapons of mass destruction joke that blew up on President Bush. That joke was the right idea, in theory, all about self-deprecation -- but it didn’t fully understand the context of how it would be recived by the [political] partisans who would use it to their advantage.

Parvin: The professional umbrage takeers — the pundits and the political interst groups — they're always looking for something. Doesn't make a difference if you’re a Republican or Democrat. And it’s too bad. It takes away the collegiality and camaraderie of what these evenings should be.

Larsen: Part of the problem is that these traditions were built before media attention came on them. The whole point was to let your hair down, swear, drink a little more than you’re supposed to and eveyone can bond. Once you let the cameras in on that, it’s not the same. Nowadays, everything is so heightened. It wasn’t so long ago that being called a prude was the worst thing to be called — now there seem to be political hay to be made from it.

Mortman:There's an art to how the president reacts to jokes. Does he cover his mouth? Look at his wife? Smile back? Not only does he have to eat in front of 2000 people, he has to make the appropriate facial tics and responses in front of 2000 people.

Parvin: Presidents are quite aware that people look to them. Reagan told me once that he always laughed a little harder at a joke than he thought might be warranted, because it gave a cue to the audience and helped the laughter along. That was part of his graciousness.

Little: Reagan loved humor more than anybody I've ever met in my life. He loved corny jokes. I would sometimes give Reagan jokes and he would say, "Rich, that’s funny, I gotta tell Gorbachev that." And I used to think, "who is going to interpert that joke?"

Boosler: My memories of the actual performance are great. I got loud laughter throughout, lots of boos on the Bush jokes, and watching Bill Clinton laugh hard enough to turn red and put his head in his hands is one of my all time greatest standup comedy memories. Of course, the newspaper ripped me apart the next day, but I believe they do that every year. Washington: Enjoy yourself with a stranger, then say you were drunk the night before.