Turning Gags Into a Gig: The White House Funny Man
When Mark Katz graduated from Cornell University in 1986, he made a narrow escape from law school—“the Vietnam of my generation, a quagmire where promising young lives were needlessly wasted”—and instead decided to pursue a risky and circuitous career as a writer and humorist. It was a decision that finally paid off in the spring of 1993, when he landed a recurring gig as President Bill Clinton’s joke writer. It was then, when he brought his mother to the White House to meet his boss, that Katz believes his family finally stopped sending him law school brochures.
“I used to worry about him,” said his brother Robert, a lawyer. “I mean, where does a wiseass get tenure? But he’s carved out a niche and made it work.”
That he did: Katz has just published “Clinton & Me: A Real Life Political Comedy” (Miramax), a well-received memoir that recounts his unusual gig. In addition to offering up scores of jokes — not all of which will be familiar to even the most religious C-Span viewers (some of Katz’s best lines were killed before they made it to the president’s lips) — Katz’s book makes an artful case for the particular brand of humor that Katz urged on President Clinton.
“Self-deprecating humor is almost exclusively instinctive only to the most skillful public practitioners of power and your average Jew,” Katz writes in his memoir. And in a recent interview with the Forward, he elaborated on the self-effacing wit that he, like so many past and present Jewish comedians, trades in.
“It’s a tool that gives the unempowered leverage against the powerful,” said Katz, who is compact and boyish with a genial smile. He uses this tool in his book, as well as in his increasingly frequent speaking engagements and performances (including the HBO-sponsored U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo. last month).
In the book, Katz explains that to hit its target, self-deprecation has to be genuine and it has to be about something real. It shouldn’t just pretend, like the guy who reflexively calls his wife his better half, he said. But self-deprecation may be well and good when your subject (i.e., victim) is yourself, but quite another when you are ghostwriting jokes for the president of the United States — someone who is not exactly “unempowered.”
“That’s a conundrum that you have to reconcile,” he said. “I tried to do it by writing for the person, not for the job” — meaning not the stone-faced commander in chief sitting for an Oval Office portrait, but the guy who told MTV that he prefers briefs over boxers — which might have made Katz the only Clinton aide who was constantly reminding his boss of personal foibles and gaffes that he undoubtedly wanted to forget.
“[The job] is premised on a small degree of courage,” Katz said wryly.
Katz said the bravest thing he has ever done was to argue with Clinton about the comic value of his long-windedness. The problem: The president didn’t think he was long-winded.
It was January of 1995 and Katz had written a humorous speech for Clinton to deliver to the Washington machers of the Alfalfa Club. The speech trod on sensitive territory because it made pointed references to the historically long State of the Union address he had given a few days’ earlier. In addition to jokes — Katz would have had Clinton say, “I got some good feedback the next day. Senator [Robert] Byrd called to ask if he could read it at his next filibuster”—Katz suggested that the president begin his remarks by putting put an old-fashioned egg timer on the podium. The President would then set it for five minutes, and every time the device squawked, the president would pick it up and reset it to give himself more time.
But Clinton didn’t like being the butt of this particular joke. He reminded Katz that 83 percent of Americans thought he had given a “helluva” State of the Union address. In anger, Clinton grabbed the egg timer from Katz’s hand and put it aside, a clear attempt to end the discussion. Katz reached right back and returned the device to the stunned president (“In case you change your mind…”).
With a passion stemmimg partly from his seriousness about humor and partly from his devotion to Clinton and the Democrats, Katz believed in the correctness of his position. Humor can be “a tactical, strategic tool,” he said. In this case, Katz believed, it would have cost the president little and won him approval and good press. But Clinton did not heed Katz’s advice that night — and his speech was panned.
“The President apparently just didn’t get it,” reported the Washington Post, saying that Clinton had given an earnest and angry speech rather than a light, funny one.
After that, the president apparently warmed to self-deprecation—and to Katz.