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

back to what the hell