Remarks of Mark Katz
Keynote Address to 1999 Speechwriters Conference
February 11, 1999
Thank you for that very kind and flattering introduction. If the situation were reversed, Id lie for you too.
Like so many of you, I am a ghostwriter. So you know what a rare occasion it is when a ghostwriter gets to hear his own words out of his own mouth. In fact, I have to admit: at the last minute, I chickened out and hired this handsome actor to deliver these remarks for me.
Allow me to begin by briefly answering the question put to me most often: how did you get to write jokes for the president of the United States? Actually, the question I get is "how the hell did YOU get to write jokes for the president of the United States?"
The short answer is, I started out as a wise-ass and worked my way up.
The longer answer is the tale of a humor career that has taken me from the principals office to the Oval Office. And if youll indulge me some, Id like to share some of the details of this unlikely path as an introduction to the real point of these remarks: what it is Ive learned about the role and the limits of humor along the way and how it may relate to the challenges many of you face every day.
I grew up in a suburb of New York City called Rockland County. Rockland County is not a particularly politically charged place. It is, in fact, a hotbed of social rest. My father isnt a public official, hes an orthodontist. My Mom isnt an activist, shes a dental hygienist. But in my family, politics was important. And as my friends spent afternoons watching cartoons, I was endlessly entertained by the Watergate hearings.
In fact, I officially date my political career back to 1972. That was the year I was asked to address my fellow third graders on why they should vote for George McGovern over Richard Nixon. And to this day, I still think I might have won that debate if those Nixon goons hadnt broken into my cubby and stolen my notes.
I got my start in the humor industry the traditional way: by getting thrown out of classrooms. So I date my career in humor back to the seventh grade when I got tossed out of my first classroom - and you never forget your first one. That was the year my English teacher, Miss Nussbaum, regularly used an expression that I found well, quizzical Whenever we were going to be tested, she announce a "quizzical" Shed say thing like: "Class, tomorrow there will be a spelling quizzical," or "Monday there will be a literature quizzical." Well, one day she announced there would be a comprehensive vocabulary quizzical. So I raised my hand and asked: Miss Nussbaum, will that be a quizzical or a testicle?
Not surprisingly that comment precipitated my very first trip to the principals office. Twenty-two years later another vaunted authority figure, the President of the United States, had summoned me to his office for those very same skills. Vindication at last.
In the years in between those two defining moments, I had an assortment of al a carte writing experience in journalism, political campaigns and advertising, incorporating humor as my style in each. My first job out of college was with my home state Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. There, I learned the rudimentary lessons of workaday politics and how to fix a very dry martini.
Anxious to work on a presidential campaign, in 1987 I left to work for nothing on a fledgling enterprise called the Dukakis campaign. Because I knew that with my extensive undergraduate studies of the American electoral process and keen instinct for political trends, I was just the person they needed to clip newspapers each day at 5 in the morning. But after a few months of requisite indentured servitude, I was put on staff and put to work in the communications office. Having demonstrated a talent for writing punchy sound bites, I was placed on a small 3-man squad called the Rapid Response Team. Our job to churn out responses to the daily influxes of Lee Atwaters political hand grenades and character assassinations.
Now consider that concept for a moment: the Dukakis Campaign "Rapid Response Team." Those of you who recall the sad history of the Dukakis will not be surprised to learn that by mid-June, we dropped the word "Rapid" from the title. By early September, we dropped "Response." By the end of the campaign, we were pretty much just a team......of three despondent guys. My job on that team was to add the humor to the official campaign statements and debate prep material. Ladies and gentlemen, you are looking at the guy who made Mike Dukakis so funny.
You may be interested to know that also on that team was a fellow named George Stephanopoulos. He was the guy who made Mike Dukakis so short and so Greek. And he did a hell of a job. I know hes gone on to bigger and better things but back when I was working shoulder to shoulder with him every day, he was a punk like the rest of us. He was better known as George "Stuffinenvelopes."
As you can imagine, it is still not easy to explain this entry on my resume. Writing rapid response and humor for a candidate known as the most humorless and non-responsive in modern electoral history. The fact is, I wrote hundreds of jokes and helped churn out hundred of responses. All for naught. Because writing humor for Mike Dukakis is like being staff photographer for the Wall Street Journal. But to this day, when people say the Dukakis campaign was "a joke" I cant help but feel a little proud.
To be honest, I still admire Michael Dukakis as a man and a public servant but most of what I learned about communications from that campaign stemmed from his shortcomings as a candidate. Mike Dukakis didnt come across as warm and lovable in public because those were not his attributes in private. Not that he wasnt a nice man or an accomplished governor, but he wasnt someone who could feign anything he was not. And on some level, that trait is very reassuring for our political system, perhaps now more than ever.
That was my first experience in incorporating humor into high-profile message making. I learned that it required more than the funny line that executes the key idea. It requires from the speaker an ability to understand how others perceive them independent from how they perceive themselves. And of course, I learned all this the hard way. Thats what I learned for the long run. But in the short run, we lost. And from there, I went on to a series of writing jobs at communication strategy firms and advertising agencies. I wrote ads and engaged in "message-making" for a variety of products, people, industries and ideas. And more often than not, the messages that I generated where premised and expressed through humor.
Today, the toughest question anyone can ask me is what I do for a living. The best description Ive come up with is that I am a free-lance humor consultant. In 1993 I founded something called the Sound Bite Institute, a one-man think tank for creative writing projects and soon after was appointed its resident scholar by a slim one-vote margin. And as resident scholar of the Sound Bite Institute, I regularly work with important people in politics, entertainment and corporations who feel the need to get in touch with their funny inner child, the repressed anarchist in all of us who had the urge but not the audacity, to yell out a wisecrack from the back of a room. And on the day I was invited to the White House, the funny inner child I was in search of grew up in a place called Hope.
A political novice -- that is to say, a perfectly sane person -- might well ask why the President would waste his valuable time meeting with a humor writer when the pressing issues of the day sit in his in-basket awaiting his attention. Theyd raise a fair question, but theyd also be naive. Even the most grim-faced policy wonk understands that presidential humor is of grave importance. The two most heralded presidencies of the television age -- Kennedys and Reagans -- were those of the men with the sharpest and most disarming wit.
Humor historians tell us that John Kennedy single-handedly raised the stakes on presidential humor. Until Camelot, Presidents had only to live up to the standard of wit set by Calvin Coolidge. Today they are measured against JFKs, the man who overwhelmed the ardently underwhelmed nation of France by dismissing himself merely as the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris. (In fact, he broke the old record of winning over France set by the Nazis in 1939.)
That brand of charm lay dormant for nearly twenty years until Ronald Reagan returned self-directed laughter to the Oval Office. His smiling eyes and self-effacing humor made him simply impossible not to like. No matter how much I tried. With a single remark, President Reagan inoculated himself against reports of his lethargic pace and penchant for naps: "Hard work never killed anyone -- but Im not taking any chances." Like Kennedy, Reagan turned humor into a serious issue for the presidents who followed, leaving them all with an implicit choice: one-liners or one-termer.
What these presidents had was an innate and natural sense of humor. But more importantly, they understood how to employ it to great effect. They knew that their sense of humor, their sense of perspective and self-awareness, was what people liked about them most. And likability is valuable political capital. Because apart from heartfelt political ideology, people are more likely to support people they like.
The lesson of Kennedy and Reagan is that if you can get someone to laugh or smile at something you express, you have gone a long way towards getting them to agree with you. Humor and likability can help a politician avoid turning natural opponents into sworn enemies. If your opponent does not find you obnoxious personally, they are less likely to obstruct your efforts or at least view them in the most jaundiced light. From where I stand, this was Reagans greatest strength and, on the flipside, contributed to the undoing of Richard Nixon and Newt Gingrich. Tom Delay, consider yourself warned.
Clinton, I might add, is currently suffering from an ironic twist of this rule of thumb. His likability with the American people is his second most powerful political armor, the first being an infinitely expanding economy. But perhaps the things House Republicans hate most about Bill Clinton is his likability the exculpatory adjective in the phrase "loveable rogue." That by the way is how you get an impeached president with 60-plus approval ratings. But we will talk more on his unique case study a little later.
So with the value of humor so great, its no wonder that occupants of the Oval Office have added "humor consultants" to the national security experts, foreign policy gurus, economic wizards and political mavens that comprise their arsenal of aficionados. The modern collection of wise men and wise women has been expanded to include a wise-ass.
Personally, I think its only fair that the political world has raided the world of humor. Because Americas opinion of its President is shaped more by the one-liners crafted for late-night comics than through the press releases issued by staffers. Which explains why most politicians have come to fear laughter; more often than not, it comes at their expense. My job is to remind them that humor can be their friend. The trick is not just to steal the format but co-opt the target as well. Because if someone is willing to joke about themselves, how bad can it really be? Its not enough for a politician to possess a savage wit. They must have the self-assurance to savage themselves.
Whenever I work with a person for the first time, I find myself retelling my favorite anecdote from presidential humor history. John Kennedys 1960 Gridiron speech. President Kennedy just won the election and the world was still whispering that his father bought it for him. In front of the Gridiron Club, a collection of the 300 most important journalists and statesmen in Washington, John Kennedy stood up and read this fake telegram from his father dated the week of his razor thin and -- some say "stolen" -- victory over Richard Nixon: "Jack, don't spend one dollar more than is necessary. I'll be dammed if I'm going to pay for a landslide."
Had anyone else in that room read that same fake telegram, Kennedy would have been humiliated. The story would have been retold and retold, each time at Kennedys expense. Instead, the story has become lore and its intended effect has lasted for decades.
Now while the first rule of political humor is self-deprecation, not all political humor is self-directed. I believe that by the time youve followed that rule three or four times, youve acquired the license to make self-deprecating remarks on behalf of another. When there are points to be scored, very few partisans can resist the temptation. But only the skillful can pull it off. On some level, political humor is political message making by another means. A political joke about an opponent is funny when it rings true. And when something that rings true and is expressed is a funny way, you both get a laugh and make a point. But political humor aimed at others comes with this caveat: political humor needles, not impales. If a politician enters a room to unleash jokes intended to settle a score, theyve probably already lost.
These maxims about the utility of self-directed humor and the limits of score-settling humor is true for all Commander-in-Chiefs and Chief Operating Officers. I think there is a more specific framework for evaluating the role of humor for Bill Clinton. Exercising the license of humor, this president has conceded things in his humorous speeches that he has never acknowledged anywhere else. Consider these examples:
Bill Clinton never called a press conference to concede that his administration got off to a rocky start despite fiascoes such as the gays in the military, a rejected economic stimulus package and a $400 haircut. (Ah, the good old days.) But when his first appearance at the White House Correspondence coincided with his first one hundred days in office, the President joked to the White House press corps: "I dont think Im doing that bad. On the 100th day after his inauguration, William Henry Harrison was already dead for 68 days."
Back when late night comics made Clinton fat jokes part of their nightly monologue, he never made mention of it in a State of the Union address, for example. But during one humor speech, as he listed the under-reported accomplishments of his first two years in office, he did count among them that: "Millions of Americans feel better about how they look in running shorts."
Hes never issued a White House statement about his reputation among reporters for a penchant for self-pity, But he did say "Some say my relations with the press have been marked by self-pity. I like to think of it as the outer limits of my empathy. I feel my pain."
He never admitted he used the Lincoln Bedroom improperly but in the spring of 96, in the heat of the re-election campaign, he did give a wink to the subject with this line: "the bad news is, our only child is going off to college. The good news is, it opens up another bedroom."
He never admitted he had any shading dealings in Whitewater nor -- I should add -- has anyone ever proven any either. But he did open a speech by saying: "Really, I am delighted to be here tonight. And if you believe that, I have some land in northwest Arkansas Id like to sell you."
Nor did he ever say that his famous White House "coffees" were actually fundraisers. But after Bob Dole agreed to loan Newt Gingrich a few hundred thousand dollars, he did say: "You know, if I had known Bob Dole was so generous, I would have invited him over for coffee."
I say this to you because there may be some acknowledged truths about you boss or your company that might not belong in your companies annual report to shareholders but he or she might acknowledge at the right time and place. But be warned: there are boundaries to keep in mind for practitioners of public mirth. And I found some last year.
Because while there are many things you can concede through humor, there are subjects too thermonuclear to even be addressed even with humor. In the case of Bill Clinton, you could go through all speeches, humorous or otherwise, and not find one that makes mention of his reputation for having an eye for the ladies.
Every night, Letterman and Leno get big laughs with the same joke but the president could never even hint at that one thing that everyone says about him. And therein lies the lesson of the sensitive topics of the administration of William Jefferson Clinton:
You can have a rough start in your first 100 days in office. You can eat at McDonalds and jog in public with pale, flabby thighs. You can have an ambitious health care proposal that gets distorted and demonized and goes down in flames. You can lose control of the House of Representatives for your party for the first time in a generation.
How do we know this? Because you can joke about it, acknowledge it, dismiss it and live to see another day. But you cant have sex with your staff. Also: its not a good idea to be accused of obstructing justice.
And how do we know this? Because for the life of me, I cant imagine him standing up in front of the White House press corps and making funny, charming, self-effacing jokes about having sex in the Oval Office with an intern. Or giving "legally accurate" but misleading testimony to a Grand Jury. Nor when the charges against him are finally dismissed can he gloat. Or make mention of not being able to gloat because that will sound too much like gloating.
That being said, last spring he did give some speeches while the allegations were known by everyone but he denied that they were true. And that did give some room for humor. At the time he was shielded by a legal construct that prevented him from discussing details in public. But we found the room to at least make fun of the very lawyers who were trying their hardest to protect him. He made the jokes of man in a jam, gagged by his own lawyers. It made Bill Clinton seem sympathetic.
He opened one with this announcement: "This may be the only speech in the long history of the Gridiron club that has ever been redacted."
"But the counsels office did send over some material they deemed funny:
Why did the chicken cross the road? Res ipsa loquitur.
Why did the chicken cross the road? Asked and answered!
A lawyer and his client walk into a bar. The client turns to his lawyer and says -- No wait. Thats privileged.
Knock! Knock! DONT ANSWER THAT!!
At last years White House Correspondents Dinner, he had the difficult asignment of speaking directly to the few thousand people who get up every day trying to bring him down.
After doing similar material premised in his Miranda rights, amazingly enough he even had occasion to go on the offensive. Last spring, a number of reports detailing his relationship with a certain young woman had to be pulled back by major media outlets for insufficient sourcing. His response: "I hardly have any time to read the news anymore. Mostly, I just skim the retractions."
These were funny jokes, well-received at the time. The problem was he was lying. Some of those retracted stories proved to be true. And ultimately those jokes were part of the lie. I deeply regret that. Id prefer that jokes be part of the truth. I think humor is the best language to express what cannot otherwise be said. It can communicate where other words cant like tears smiles and pheromones. And I honestly wish he had called me before this whole mess started and run it by me. I would have said. "Well Mr. President, I dont think I could write a joke that would get you out of that scenario. Id steer clear of it, if you can." And maybe this whole mess might have been avoided. I think that could have been my best contribution to his legacy. And its not a bad rule of thumb for guiding your actions. If you cant imagine dismissing a potential scenario with a good-natured joke, think carefully before entering into it.
My only other regret is the advice I offered him the first time I wrote a speech for him. I suggested that he visualize everyone in the audience sitting in their underwear. Looking back, that was probably a mistake.
As you might imagine, people ask me all the time what I think of the mess going on. Let me tell you: this has been a very difficult year for me. Ive heard more Clinton jokes in the past twelve months than Ive written for him in five years. Im sure you have seen a good many of all those Clinton jokes flying around the internet. Whenever they wind up in the mailbox of any person I have ever met, their response is "Oh, I know who I should forward this to." My hard drive is the Library of Congress for crude Clinton jokes.
This whole thing is humiliating for me, for him, for you, for our country. everyone. Even just to watch it on the evening news and on the Sunday morning talk shows. I may not be able to define pornography but I know it when Bob Schieffer says it.
But ultimately as I consider this fiasco, I compare it against the benchmark of Watergate . If Watergate was a "cancer on the presidency" This is a cold sore on the presidency. Watergate was a scandal worthy of Woodward and Bernstein. This is a scandal worthy of Drudge. In fact, I wish that Ken Starr had learned this lesson of Watergate before he issued his report. As fellow speechwriters, I ask you: where was the phrase "expletive deleted" when we really need it?
I guess Im from the old school. I prefer the days when presidents used the Oval Office to raise money and had sex in the Lincoln bedroom.
Before I finish, I want to answer the question Im many of you are silently thinking: Is it possible to make anyone funny?" And each of you has a different "anyone" in mind. And the answer is no. But with hard work on your part and a willingness of your speaker to try, you can certainly make someone less unfunny.
The real secret is to figure out someone's innate sense of humor and help them express it. Most people are naturally funny and politicians are a lot like people in many significant ways. And to varying degrees, the same is true of CEOs and VIPs.
I dont know if you any of you ever saw Socrates resume, but he once described his job as the midwife to other peoples ideas. And I think I have a similar job description: I help people to express their own sense of humor. Of course, Socrates career ended with a tall glass of hemlock, so I think there is lesson for all of us in that as well.
I thank you very much for your attention and Ill be happy to answer any questions you may have.
Back To Katz Tricks