Reprinted from The Speechwriter’s Newsletter, a trade publication for communication professionals.

Q&A The Rewards of Humor

A conversation with presidential speechwriter Mark Katz on humor speechwriting and it increased popularity in American discourse.

Before the millennium, there was speculation as to how things might change in 2000. Do you think humor and speechwriting might change in this next century?

The best news about humor writing in the millennium is that the millennium jokes are behind us. Only 998 years before I can start to recycle mine.

Has humor and speechwriting changed at all in the past couple of years?

Not in any significant way. The rules for the game are still the same. We haven’t undergone any wholesale change about the utility of humor in public speaking. It is just that each day presents a new opportunity. There have been more examples of humor speechwriting and more opportunities for it.

So your phone is ringing more and more with requests for humor speechwriting?

I think that there is a growing appreciation for humor in speeches and humor in public life. We just watched the First Lady take a trip to David Letterman’s couch. And that is an accepted part of campaigning and public discourse. No one asks anymore, "Why is she going on Letterman?" The question is, "When is she going on Letterman?" This kind of phenomenon has taken root in the Clinton Presidency–even before he was president–he appeared on "The Arsenio Hall Show" and played the saxophone. The role of late night television humor is to establish a connection with the public. Of course the [Clintons] didn’t invent the idea–Nixon appeared on "Laugh-In"–but they have taken it to a new level. As they have with a lot of brands of communications.

In general, how would you say humor transforms a speech or appearance?

In addition to just generating laughter, the real power of humor is in its ability to communicate likability. Once you have shared a laugh with someone–or get a glimpse of how their brain works on a humor level–you like them more.

For example, Hillary Clinton’s appearance on Letterman?

Absolutely. Ultimately, what came across was that she is more likable than funny. People didn’t watch that and think, "Wow, what a funny person!" No one watched that and thought that she came up with those top ten lists by herself. But everyone in America could empathize with the fear she must have faced with the prospect of going on, and watched with admiration that she did so well.

In politics, and in life, "likability" is a powerful thing.

I don’t know if you want to correlate the two, but the polls just tightened in New York. And [Hillary] is now within a margin of error of Giuliani. That poll was taken after her appearance on Letterman. Was it a direct result? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t divorce it.

Were you involved in H. Clinton’s appearance on Letterman?

I can’t answer that question because it would violate the sacred bond of the comedian/client relationship.

Do you often write humor speeches with that likability factor in mind?

Sure. I did work for a CEO whose company was involved in a very high profile legal dispute and wanted to demonstrate that he still had confidence and good humor about the recent set back. He took an opportunity at a very public place to mention it in a humorous way. It got widely quoted. I think everyone thought more of him — and his company -- for it.

Sometimes the degree of humor in speeches is surprising. For example, I read the White House Correspondence dinner speech that you wrote last year for President Clinton. I could not believe that he so openly poked fun at his scandalous year Is that liberty possible because of the person you are writing for, or the audience, or both?

Clinton is enormously talented. You see it just about every time he steps up to a podium and communicates. Think what you will of him; the man is to politics what Willie Mays is to baseball. He is a once-in-a-generation talent. Part of that talent is his ability to express himself, and humor is an important mode of expression that he has mastered.

If you go back and look at the type of humor and quality of humor that he has used in his speeches since 1993, and compared that to how presidents used them in the decades before–you might find that he has taken it to a higher level. You can think it is appropriate or it’s not.

Is that a new phenomenon? Audiences expecting that leaders such as the President of the United States be funny?

I don’t hear too many people say that the president shouldn’t be that funny. But I have heard–what I think might be the highest compliment regarding these venues–is that he has been consistently funnier than the paid professional comedian that he precedes. And that is not small accomplishment.

Is what he says really that hilarious?

It’s partly because he is the President and he is being funny. He will get a bigger laugh because he are the President, than if you or I stand in front of a microphone telling the same line. But he also has a disadvantage: he can’t say all the things that you or I or certainly a comedian would say. The scope of what’s appropriate for him is much more narrow. There is a trade off, but he has made the most of that trade-off.

I know that often your speechwriting is a collaborative effort. Because of the nature of creating something as a team, do you feel some of the personal satisfaction is lost?

Humor is a different animal because people have a strong response to it. Sometimes you just want to share that response. So I am lucky to be working in a format that lends itself to fostering relationships with the people involved in it. Just cause it’s fun. And only cause it is fun.

So–despite working with high profile, busy clients–you do get feedback regarding your work?

Sure. I have developed some close professional relationships with clients. For example, I have a client who is CEO of an entertainment company. I wrote a speech for him at an industry award dinner and he gave a funny, 10-minute presentation. I couldn’t attend. So he called me the next day and re-read the entire speech to me, telling me verbatim where the laughs were, and how big the laughs were. He did a play by play of it. That was great, actually, because as you work on the speech, you sit around, strategize and make things sound funny together. In that, you kind of develop a respect for each other’s sense of humor. And there is a curiosity there. I was dying to know what lines got the big laugh. So he took 15 minutes out of his day, to deliver the speech again, and share those laughs with me.