Backstory: Serious business of jokes in politics

The nation's capital is gearing up for its "silly season" - that gauntlet of dinners from January through April that can launch a political star. Or not. Knock 'em dead at an event like the Gridiron Club or White House Correspondents' Dinner and a politician can become Steve Allen overnight. The right joke, deftly told, is also a preemptive strike. It can ease a scandal, derail an attack, or make someone more likable, even if they're not.

But it's also easy to strike out on the Washington humor circuit. Lines that get laughs in New York or Los Angeles can look coarse, or, worse, naive here.

Those that can help politicians navigate humor - a shifting corps of funnymen and women ranging from professional joke writers to think-tankers, journalists, and congressional staff - are prized. Unlike the serious speech writers, most of the purveyors of punch lines like to remain anonymous, for understandable reasons: Politicians don't want to look like the wrong end of a ventriloquist act.

The writers steal (shamelessly) from each other, and the fight to have the last edit on a political stand-up routine can be as fierce as the one over a State of the Union address. The reason? Jokes are serious business in politics.

"It's mandatory in this day and age to be considered to have a sense of humor and to demonstrate it," says Robert Orben, a comedy writer for Red Skelton and Jack Paar before moving to Washington to direct President Ford's White House speech-writing department. "You're not paying me for a joke," he tells clients. "You're paying me for the right joke."

One of the gold standards for political humor in this town is still a Gridiron Dinner in 1958. Sen. John Kennedy, in the hunt for the presidency, rose to speak after a skit roasting him for using his father's money to buy his first Senate race. No fools, the Kennedy team anticipated this line of attack. When it was the Massachusetts senator's turn to respond, he read a "telegram" from his father: "Jack: Don't spend one dime more than is necessary. I'll be damned if I am going to pay for a landslide."

Humor in politics, of course, hasn't always been so scripted. Abraham Lincoln was renowned for his wryness, which even got him in trouble. Critics vilified him for "inappropriate" humor in a time of war, though some of that might have been his targets. He once said of Congress: "I have been told I was on the road to hell, but I had no idea it was just a mile down the road with a dome on it."

With the advent of radio and television, humor took on new significance in Washington. Suddenly, whimsy could be amplified to a wider audience. "You can date the rise of presidential humor to the television age," says Mark Katz, a humor writer for President Clinton and Vice President Gore and founder of the Sound Bite Institute in New York.

"The real power of humor is [that] it speaks to subtext," he adds. "It allows politicians to say things that might otherwise not get said."

Some in Washington have always been more adept at it than others. President Reagan changed the momentum in his second debate with Walter Mondale (D) with one now-famous joke. The line was aimed at countering the unspoken suggestion that he was too old for the job. "I will not exploit, for political purposes, the youth and inexperience of my opponent," he said.

Gerald Ford helped defuse his image as a presidential klutz - relentlessly mocked on late-night shows - with a single borscht-belt move. When he got up to give his speech at the 1976 banquet of the Radio-Television Correspondents Association, he made sure to take the tablecloth with him, sending dishes, glasses, and silverware tumbling to the floor. Then, still appearing oblivious, he sprayed 100 pages of a speech down the front of the lectern. By the time he got to his first line, acknowledging his comic nemesis Chevy Chase as a "very very funny suburb," the audience was howling.

President Clinton took harbor in the port of self-deprecating humor after a rough first 100 days in office. From federal raids in Waco, Texas, to gays in the military and a $200 haircut on the L.A. tarmac, things had not gone well. The Clinton press team couldn't acknowledge it, but a joke at the White House Correspondents' Dinner did. "I don't think I'm doing that badly," Clinton deadpanned. "After his first 100 days in office, William Henry Harrison had already been dead for 68 days!"

"The only safe humor for a politician is self-deprecating," says Liz Carpenter, who headed the first White House "humor group" for President Johnson.

For those without natural comedic gifts, humor can be taught or bought. But some politicians take pride in their inner Jay Leno. "I don't pay for jokes," says Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania. "I can't afford to pay for all the legal advice I need, and, besides, there's too much good material all around here."

Other politicians simply don't do funny. "Bad timing," says Don Stewart, a spokesman for Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, explaining why his boss avoids such appearances, particularly the late-night shows. "Even if you are funny, the risk-reward ratio of doing a funny show is not in most person's favor," he adds. "If you're not funny, you bomb or voters want to know, 'what is the senator doing on a goof-off show?' "

Still, late night television can offer a big payoff for politicians. Candidate Bill Clinton scored a hit with his saxophone on the "Arsenio Hall Show." But when Richard Nixon uttered the familiar "sock it to me" line on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" in the 1968 presidential campaign, many thought he came off as odd.

Today the edgier comic style of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" or "Real Time with Bill Maher" pose special risks for Washington officials: It's easy to look a step too slow.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, a leading budget hawk, was at first reluctant to do an interview with the Daily Show's Rob Corddry, but then agreed in part "to impress my 17-year-old son," he says. He thought the hour-long shoot had gone well, until he saw the edited version on TV. The funny bits about pork spending had been cut. By the last question - did he use federal funds to dye his (blond) hair? No, he said, "It's the Arizona sun" - it was clear that the brunt of the joke was him.

"You have got to be a brave politician to go on with Jon Stewart," says Landon Parvin, an in-demand GOP humor writer. "Unless you're a natural at that, it's a big risk."


"I have been told I was on the road to hell, but I had no idea it was just a mile down the road with a dome on it."
- Abraham Lincoln on Congress.

"I don't think I'm doing that badly. After his first 100 days in office, William Henry Harrison had already been dead for 68 days."
- Bill Clinton on his rocky start in office.

"I will not exploit, for political purposes, the youth and inexperience of my opponent."
- Ronald Reagan to Walter Mondale in a debate, trying to defuse the age issue.

"The only person more overhyped than me is you."
- Barack Obama to Jon Stewart, deflecting a question about the Illinois senator's superstar reputation.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.