New Yorker

Variety: 50 Creatives to Watch

The New York Times

Wall Street Journal

April 24, 2000


It is not, perhaps, the most important event in Bill Clinton’s farewell tour of Washington, but April 29th marks the president’s final speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and thus the last time he delivers laughs on command. As a consequence, the occasion is a turning point for a thirty-six year old New Yorker named Mark Katz, who has served as Clinton’s chief jokewriter for both tumultuous terms. "It’s been a remarkable window on this administration," Katz said the other day over lunch. "I can tell you the joke answer to every crisis that’s come up — the haircut, the gays in the military, everything. I’ve sat in front of a word processor and tried to handle them all."

Katz is on the short side, built close to the ground, and he is easily amused. (What, you expected Gary Cooper?) Like most humorists, he began his career by getting thrown out of class in the seventh grade, in his case in Rockland County, a place Katz remembers as "a hotbed of social rest." After college, he volunteered in the Dukakis campaign and soon found himself a sort of comedy czar for that doomed undertaking. "Yes, I’m the man who made Mike Dukakis so funny," he said. "When people say that campaign was a joke, I can’t help but feel a little proud."

Katz puttered around advertising for a few years, until in 1993, friends from the Dukakis campaign hooked him up with Clinton for the annual round of after-dinner speeches — at the Gridiron, Radio & TV, and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner — where the President was expected to entertain ballrooms full of grumpy reporters in evening dress. Katz has come to see the speeches as kind of unofficial history of the Clinton years. "He says stuff in those speeches that he never would have said anywhere else. For example, the president never admitted that he used the Lincoln Bedroom to raise campaign funds but at the 1996 Correspondents’ Dinner he said, "The bad news is that our only child is going off to college. The good news is, it opens up another bedroom." Last year, Clinton winked at his well-known distaste for the correspondents themselves, noting that if he had lost the impeachment vote in the Senate he would not be appearing before them. "I demand a recount," he intoned. There are, however, no jokes about skirt-chasing.

Katz has turned his post as shtick-master general of the United States into a one-man humor consulting operation he calls the Sound Bite Institute. In addition to various corporate jobs, Katz has consulted with Hillary Clinton and advised Al Gore on a number of recent speeches. (Gore turned down one of his more edgy offerings:
You know, the Washington Post just reported that I got C’s and D’s in my sophomore year of college. But they failed to report that that was also the year I invented the bong.")

Katz’s fondest memory of his White House years concerns a speech that Clinton did not give. "I was all set to do the rehearsal for his White House Correspondents’ Speech in 1995," Katz recalled, "and at the last minute they decided it was too close to the Oklahoma City bombing for him to do something funny. I was despondent. Then, a couple of minutes later, I got a call that the President wanted to see me. I ran back to the Oval Office, and he said "Let’s just read through it for laughs.’ And that’s what he did. So I’ve been pitied at the highest levels. He felt my pain."

--Jeffrey Toobin

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September 3, 2000

50 Creatives to Watch:
The next wave of behind the scenes talent

Mark Katz
TV Writer

"A reporter called me last week and asked about the difference between writing lines for president Clinton and Gabriel Byrne," says humorist and presidential speechwriter turned sitcom scribe Mark katz. "I answered, "When Gabriel Byrne's character goes on a date, it doesn't create a constitutional crisis."

Katz is currently a staff writer on ABC's "Madigan Men," trying his hand at television after spending eight years on the presidential speechwriting circuit. His long collaborative friendship with "Madigan Men" creator Cindy Chupack led to his working on the show.

As well as writing speeches for Clinton, Al Gore, Madeleine Albright and corporate CEO's, he collaborated with speechwriter Jeff Shesol and Phil Rosenthal ("Everybody Loves Raymond") on Clinton's famed final address at the White House Correspondent's Dinner last spring, deemed by many the funniest of Clinton's career.

Katz's humor essays have appeared on television, in Time, The New Yorker and the New York Times. He is repped by Adam Berkowitz at CAA.

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May 7, 2000

Washington Memo; For Politicians, Being Funny Is a Serious Business

By John Files

Mark Katz, presidential comedy writer, was pacing in the wings of the Washington Hilton like a nervous father-to-be while President Clinton delivered his lines at the White House correspondents' dinner last Saturday night.

It was the high point of Washington's silly season, a kind of political sweeps, and Bill Clinton was lampooning himself as the quintessential Lonely Guy in the twilight of his presidency. His performance at the dinner won accolades as his funniest ever. Mr. Clinton showed home movies of himself running after his wife with a lunch bag, watching his laundry dry and bicycling through the Old Executive Office Building; the video has been replaying in the capital's offices all week.

Being funny at the annual dinners of the Alfalfa Club, the Gridiron Club, and the associations of White House and broadcast correspondents, has become serious business in Washington, and Mr. Katz is a regular writer on the circuit. ''A good joke will last a week,'' said Mr. Katz, who also helped write Vice President Al Gore's speech at this year's Gridiron dinner. ''And a bad joke will appear in their obituary.''

The rules are strict. No sexually explicit humor. The radio talk show host Don Imus shocked Washington with his raunchy jokes about the president at the radio-television correspondents' dinner in 1996. Stay away from ethnic jokes. Former Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato learned that lesson the hard way when he tastelessly imitated an Asian accent in a radio talk show about Judge Lance A. Ito of California. Nothing too mean. The Gridiron Club's motto applies broadly to most Washington humor: singe but do not burn.

Because the dinner speakers are mostly powerful politicians with large egos, leading Washington humorists agree that the key to success is self-deprecation. ''Self-deprecation allows you to get away with more,'' says Landon Parvin, who often writes jokes for prominent Republicans, including former Secretary of State James A. Baker.

''Take aim at yourself and then pick your spots after that,'' Mr. Katz agrees. ''You must earn the right to make fun of others by making fun of yourself.''

At the White House correspondents' dinner, Mr. Clinton made sure to singe himself first and brought down the house when he said: ''A year from now, I'll have to watch someone else give this speech. And I will feel an onset of that rare affliction, unique to former presidents. AGDD: Attention-Getting Deficit Disorder.''

Self-deprecation was also the centerpiece of Vice President Gore's successful monologues at the Gridiron dinner, in 1994, 1997 and last March. At the 1994 dinner, Mr. Gore made fun of his reputation for stiffness by being wheeled into the dais on a handcart. This year, he told the assembled journalists that ''there are some things I won't do to become president. I won't hold a press conference.'' He also drew roars by asking plaintively: ''This isn't a fund-raiser, is it?''

But he did not miss a chance to lampoon his presumed Republican rival for the presidency, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who he said ''thinks fettuccine Alfredo is the Italian prime minister.''

Writing Washington humor can be tricky, not only because the jokes must be topical, but also because, ''You never know exactly what might go over the line,'' says Mr. Parvin. The 51-year-old scribe, who dreams up jokes at his home in Fredericksburg, Va., has mostly written for Republicans, but also helped write lines for Robert S. Strauss, the prominent lawyer and former Democratic National Committee national chairman, at this year's Gridiron dinner. Much of his time is spent writing serious speeches for politicians and corporate executives. ''I write for people I like,'' he says.

Mr. Parvin helped President Ronald Reagan use humor as a shield against his age, his glamorous background and even his relaxed work habits. But his big break came at the Gridiron dinner in 1982. He wrote the lyrics for a song, ''Secondhand Clothes,'' sung by Nancy Reagan, which parodied her taste for designer clothes.

Mr. Katz, 36, formed the Soundbite Institute, a humor-writing consulting business, seven years ago in his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, after losing his job at an advertising agency. He is the institute's ''resident scholar.''

In 1993, Mr. Katz wrote a speech for Madeleine K. Albright, who was then the United States ambassador to the United Nations, that sparked laughter from President Clinton. He has since written for Mr. Clinton, Mr. Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mr. Katz says he likes to test ''the line'' in his humor writing. ''I try to figure out where the line is, walk directly up to it and say hi,'' he said. ''The challenge is writing right on the line.''

One problem, both Mr. Katz and Mr. Parvin say, is that being funny has become a test for politicians. ''These are big pressure events,'' Mr. Parvin says.

Humor has become another proving ground, especially for presidential candidates. Besides handling stand-up at the annual Washington dinners of media barons, politicians and lobbyists, politicians are expected to appear on the late-night Leno and Letterman shows, and on ''Saturday Night Live.''

Mr. Gore has improved his timing and delivery in recent years, but can still be a bit rigid. Mr. Bush has yet to make a major Washington appearance as a humorist (he did a short speech at the Alfalfa Club in 1998) but his remarks did draw a few laughs at a recent Republican fund-raising dinner. His appearance on the Letterman show in March, however, drew chilly reviews.

Presidents rarely bomb. ''A president gets laughs easier,'' Mr. Parvin says.

In his last year in office, Mr. Clinton seems to have mastered humor and is having a great time using jokes to get in some last digs. At the radio and television correspondents' dinner, he won over the crowd with a gibe at ABC News's handling of Leonardo DiCaprio's interview with the president for the network's Earth Day special. ''Don't you news people ever learn?'' the president asked. ''It isn't the mistake that kills you, it's the cover-up.''

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When Democrats Need To Lighten Up, He Has The Laugh Lines

Young Mark Katz Writes Jokes For Clintons and Al Gore; No More Dole Monopoly

By Dana Milbank
Staff reporter of the Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON – Democrats are leaving the Party, Republicans are having their way in Congress. The country, the president said, is in a funk.

There can be only one solution for the Democrats. Send Mark Katz on a congressional joke-writing mission.

Paid humor consultant to the Democratic National Committee and a modern-day court jester to the White House, Mr. Katz arrives from New York by train and begins to sniff around Capital Hill. He talks to staffers, watches C-SPAN and scans the political horizon for setups.

Newt Gingrich? "It’s too bad he decided he decided not to run for president. He only needed another 10,000 frequent-flier miles for an upgrade to first class on Air Force One."

Budgets cuts? Remember the good old days when the Republican Party just ignored the poor?"

Abortion? Now that Pete Wilson and Arlen Spector have quit the campaign, all the pro-choice Republicans in the race have terminated in the first trimester."

This isn’t Mr. Katz’s first brush with fame. In 1984, as a student at Cornell, he appeared on "Late Night with David Letterman" with a poodle that played piano. These days, he teaches tricks to top dogs. The impish, 31-year-old son of an orthodontist writes zingers for the president, vice-president, first lady and Democratic congressmen.

He certainly helped Al Gore get in touch with his funny inner child. Until last year, the vice president was stereotyped as stiff or wooden. But after a few sessions with Mr. Katz, he was doing after-dinner routines worthy of Jay Leno. Mr. Gore had himself wheeled in on a hand truck at one affair and then launched into self-deprecating one-liners about himself: "He is so boring his Secret Service code name is Al Gore," and "he is an inspiration to the millions of Americans who suffer from Dutch elm disease.

The Washington Post’s judgement on the performance: "Al Gore, bore no more."

A week later, the vice president met Mr. Katz at a reception and gave him a bear hug that lifted him off the ground – causing Mr. Katz to spill his wine on both of them. (The Secret Service guy jumped in to take the stain," Mr. Katz says.)

The President’s Gratitude
Mr. Katz runs the Sound Bite Institute on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He is the resident scholar. On one wall hangs a collection of photos of him and President Clinton, with witty inscriptions.

"The egg timer was great," says one. (To lampoon his lengthy State of the Union speech, the president used the timer at a comic dinner, resetting it repeatedly.) Another reads: "Thanks to the spork, there is a Third Way." (Mr. Clinton, courtesy of Mr. Katz, had joked in a speech that the school-lunch programmed could be streamlined by merging forks and spoons as one utensil.)

Mr. Katz’s task is to counteract the nightly savaging of President Clinton by Messrs. Leno and Letterman and their huge team of writers. ‘They got cannons on their side," he says. "I’m one small derringer."

Mr. Katz’s role is limited mostly to the four comic dinners of Washington’s "silly season", which begins next month. But a performance at the spring dinner of the Gridiron Club – a main event of the Washington journalistic and political establishment – can make or break a career. The jitters have a lot to do with what is called "the line." Cross the line and a Washington crowd will gasp. The next day, your staff will be issuing apologies. Also dangerous is humor that is funny but too mean – such as Bob Dole’s remarks at a 1983 Gridiron dinner calling president Carter, Ford and Nixon "see no evil, hear no evil and evil."

Democrats for some reason have been in the comedy wilderness ever since President Kennedy. Would-be jokers, particularly earnest Democrats, are spooked by everything but mild, self-deprecating humor. "too many liberals have had their funny bones removed," says Paul Begala, a sometime Clinton strategist. "Katz has dragged them back into the operating room."

Humor plays a therapeutic role, too. When Mr. Katz read some of his lines to Mr. Clinton in an Oval Office meeting, "the president broke out into absolute, uncontrollable, red-in-the-face, unable-to-breathe laughter," recalls White House advisor, George Stephanopoulos.

Weaned on Watergate and Woody Allen, Mr. Katz started out as a class clown, delivering telegrams in his spare time, dressed as a gorilla. When the president met Mr. Katz’s parents, Mr. Clinton praised his wit/ His mother responded to the commander in chief: "You know, you just complimented Mark for the same things I used to spank him for."

As a gofer for the Michael Dukakis campaign in 1988, Mr. Katz gained status among Democrats with a series of one-liners for Mr. Dukakis, including one applause line for a debate with George Bush: "George, if I had a dollar for every time you called me a liberal, I’d qualify for one of your tax breaks for the rich." Mr. Dukakis was not easily amusing. "Writing humor for Mike Dukakis was like being staff photographer for The Wall Street Journal," he observes.

Mr. Katz’s first gig with the White House came in 1993. By now he has had a hand in almost all goofy moments, including the Clinton speech at which the president showed up with a camera and a press badge to take pictures of the photographers. He wrote Hillary Clinton’s explanation for her short haircut ("When the president called for sacrifice and asked everybody at the White House to give him a 25% cut, I decided to go for 50%). She wrote Mr. Katz a sweet thank-you note.

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