Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Singe, But Don't Burn


Over at the Atlantic, Joshua Green takes notes on the men (yes, they're all male) who penned Obama's speech at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. In lieu of credit, or cash, they serve at the pleasure of the president.
Unlike most presidential speeches, this one draws on the (uncredited) work of a lot of people outside the administration, from late-night television writers to particularly funny political operatives--sort of a political-comedy pro-am that offers psychic rewards, but little else. Politicians are like the Huffington Post--they don't pay comedy writers anything, and instead rely on "the sheer joy of writing for President/Senator/Secretary X" in order to make the sale.
Obviously, this gig differs from writing jokes for, say, Bill Maher, who can get away with going, as they say in the business, a little blue. The leader of the free world can't exactly act like he's auditioning for an honorary spot at the Friar's Club or give Lewis C.K. a run for his money.
It's not necessarily the funniest jokes that make the cut. One veteran Washington joke writer described the process of writing for the president like this: "The rule is, Walk as close to the line as you possible can without going over it--singe, but don't burn." It's also important that the humor not seem mean-spirited or cruel, since it will be delivered by the most powerful man on the planet. (George W. Bush is reputed to have had trouble with this--and then got singed himself when he tried it). The veteran writer advises politicians, "Humor is a powerful weapon, but in order to earn the right to wield it against others, you need to wield it again yourself first." The classic example comes from Al Gore, who poked fun at his image as a stiff by agreeing to be wheeled to the podium on a hand truck.
That's good advice, and a hard feat to accomplish. Even the tamest jokes can play caustic, if delivered by the wrong person. While he's not exactly Richard Pryor or Kevin Hart, Obama is in possession of a preternatural cool. He understands a joke's inherent rhythm, and his delivery is almost flawless. "I do love the Waldorf Astoria," he said at the Alfred E. Smith dinner before the 2008 election. "I hear from the doorstep you can see all the way to the Russian Tea Room." So good is his delivery, I'm confident he could have even pulled off this one-liner, which Josh Green tells us was cut from last year's Correspondents' Dinner at the last minute.

"We're trying to housebreak Bo. Because the last thing Tim Geithner needs is someone else pissing on him."

1 comment:

JMW said...

I had no idea about Gore being wheeled on stage, but that is hilarious. Nice work, Al.