“They’ll say, ‘This reference is a bit broad; let’s make it more specific,’” he said. “And then they bring the script back to me and I invariably say, ‘That’s funnier.’”
Still, Byrne’s a writer, not a saint.
There have been about five or six jokes where he asserted his “diva privilege” and said, “Actually, my joke was funnier.”
But, for the most part, the collaboration between playwright and speechwriters is ego-free.
“Their work is so good,” Byrne continued. “As an author, especially as a playwright, it’s always a collaborative effort.”
Two of the West Wing Writers partners, Jeff Shesol, former deputy speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, and Jeff Nussbaum, former speechwriter for Vice President Joseph Biden, take the lead on the “Will on the Hill” script revision. “It’s unlike anything else we do around here,” Shesol said. “We’re here to lend our Washington perspective.”
“And that may be the first time anyone’s copped to having a ‘Washington perspective,’” he quipped.
“We live here and we work here and we know the audience,” he continued.
And the jokes reflect that.
“There can be a problem of writing the skit too soon,” Byrne said. “Last year, we performed the day after Osama bin Laden was killed.”
The playwright and the speechwriters immediately inserted mention of the mission and bin Laden’s death into the evening’s show.
“It felt like we had to acknowledge it in some way,” Byrne said.
“This year the jokes have primarily focused on — pardon the pun — the primary,” he said.
For those who expect to hear jokes poking fun at the Secret Service’s not-so-secret Colombian pastimes or the General Services Administration’s Hawaiian vacations, don’t.
“We want to be funny, we want to be up to the moment,” Shesol said. “[But] there’s a limit to how edgy you get in an event like this. The dynamics are very different from the White House [Correspondents’ Association Dinner and] the spirit of this evening is a little different.”