For Politicians, the Quip Starts Here

Joke Writers Have Become Essential to Some Political Leaders

Posted April 5, 2005 at 3:51pm

A few years back, comedian Tim Wilkins was driving to a gig in Miami when he got the call that then-Congressional candidate Katherine Harris was in need of some assistance.

A border collie mix named Percy had been entered into the Republican field as a write-in candidate, and though the canine obviously didn’t pose any threat to the Florida secretary of state’s nomination, it was clear the situation called for a humorous rebuttal.

“We came up with: ‘We welcome him to the race. We realize we are going to have to shake a lot of paws to catch up,’” recalls Wilkins, who wrote the line with his comedic writing partner, Carmen Ciricillo. By the next day, he adds, the quote was being run on CNN International.

Wilkins, a Sunshine State transplant from Los Angeles who has also written jokes for “The Tonight Show” and is the opening act for Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias, is one of many quipsters who’ve been called on to lighten up the rebuttals and speeches of Members and aspiring Members.

In an era where late-night comedians increasingly shape political perceptions of the news, being funny isn’t just a plus for a Congressional candidate or Member — often, it’s a necessity.

“There’s definitely a comedic arms race going on,” says Jeff Nussbaum, previously an aide to then-Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and speech- writer for then-Vice President Al Gore, who now writes both serious and humorous speeches for Washington politicos. “More and more people expect to see different dimensions of their elected officials.”

Given the demand, something of a cottage industry among speechwriters and comedians has sprung up, says Jim Kennedy, an ex-aide to Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) who now serves as former President Bill Clinton’s communications director. “It’s smart because people try to do it themselves, and it sometimes doesn’t work.”

Helping Hand

While most Members need some assistance in unearthing their inner funnyman, it’s not always easy admitting you need help.

In fact, those who help Members with quips say it’s typically understood that they will remain behind the curtain, “parachuting” in when their assistance is required and then just as quickly — and silently — exiting until their services are needed again. When it comes to their clients, many declined to name names.

“We are like cicadas, we come out in our time and season … and then we disappear,” says Nussbaum. Similarly, Wilkins compares the experience of writing humorous retorts to waiting for the “Bat Signal” to go on.

“Everybody understands that the president or Senator didn’t sit down and write all these jokes for them,” says Jeff Shesol, who headed up Clinton’s “comedy war room.”

“But if you are on staff it’s unseemly to go out and take credit for it. And if you’re not on staff, it’s not good for business,” he adds.

“It’s like the ‘Skull and Bones’ of stand-up,” says conservative comedian Howard Mortman, referring to those comics who write for Members. “It’s an underworld swirling with knock-knock jokes and Bazooka Joe punch lines.”

The most lucrative part of the year for such writers, who say business is built by establishing “personal relationships,” is usually Washington’s “silly season,” which stretches from February to April and includes a string of black-tie dinners such as the Congressional Correspondents Dinner and the Gridiron Club dinner.

Other events that may call for Members to have at least a few jokes on hand are fundraisers, as well as the quadrennial nominating conventions.

“During the Republican National Convention I had a lot of calls from folks who needed stuff just in case,” says comedian Doug Hecox, a former legislative aide to Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.). “People wanted to have good lines.”

A full speech by a top-notch comedic writer can run in the “thousands of dollars,” says Mark Katz, a former gag writer for Clinton who has also written for the Capitol Hill crowd. Single jokes are cheaper, often going for between $25 and $75 apiece or delivered en masse for a flat fee.

Some humorists, who said as a rule Members are notoriously cheap when it comes to paying for funnylines, reported giving “free samples” to gain credibility or make inroads on Capitol Hill.

“There’s a certain thrill as a joke writer to have your jokes being used by a leader of this country,” says Mortman, a former editor and columnist for The Hotline. “You are giving birth … to an 8-pound strapping punch line.”

“I’m not in Congress so I don’t get to wield power,” adds Wilkins, who says a typical “pitch session” involves him and Ciricillo on the phone with Harris and campaign aides. “This is the only power wielding I get to do.”

Usually, Wilkins says, Harris will say, “I like where you are going with these, give me five more along these lines.”

Comedy Control

While many hired jokesters, such as Wilkins, are happy to provide quippy lines as needed, others say it’s never wise to hand over a joke without control over the entire presentation.

“If you give someone lines it’s like giving them a loaded gun they don’t know how to use,” says Landon Parvin, a former Reagan speechwriter who has written jokes for President Bush.

Observing a Member deliver their lines can be equally nerve-racking, these writers say.

“It’s so painful to watch them. Most of them have flat deliveries,” Mortman says. “If the Member of Congress, if the personality, gets a lot of laughs it’s to his or her credit, and if the personality gets no laughs, it’s the joke writer’s fault.”

Comedian Al Franken, a former “Saturday Night Live” writer who has contributed material to Gore, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and others, says it’s possible to get burned while trying to be a Good Samaritan.

One Member, who had asked him for assistance in assembling a list of jokes, opted to go with staff and personal favorites against Franken’s advice, brushing off his offerings with a curt, “I think we’ve got enough.”

“At the dinner … the Member bombs the worst bomb,” recalls Franken, who says he “never takes money for this.”

“Afterwards someone from a newspaper says, ‘Yeah, you really bombed.’ And the Member says, ‘Yeah, Al Franken did it.’”

Of course, plenty of Members insist that they and their staff are solely responsible for their punch lines.

For instance, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) Congressional Correspondents Dinner speech this year, which riffed on his combative relationship with the press, was the result of a collaborative effort between him and his speechwriter, Michael Connolly.

“Political comedians may need Mr. DeLay, but he doesn’t need them,” e-mailed Connolly, who adds in an interview that DeLay was the “driving force” behind the address.

“He’s a naturally funny guy. He’s practically got a Catskills routine about his first race for office,” he says in the e-mail.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), a CPA who is known on the Hill for writing his own jokes and says his “campaign funds are needed for other things,” has developed a self-roasting stand-up routine mocking his background as both a “politician and tax collector.”

“Instead of braggin’ on myself, I’m raggin’ on myself,” he chuckles.

Getting to Know You

It’s hardly news that politically like-minded individuals tend to gravitate toward one another — “Yes, Democrats write for Democrats, but those are the people we know,” says Nussbaum — though many humorists say they would write for either party given the opportunity.

Irrespective of partisan leanings, “preparing them to do a funny speech requires taking them out their element,” Nussbaum says.

“When you are in with a powerful person writing a humorous speech, you find yourself saying things you would never in a million years say to that person, like, ‘Sir, you’re kind of fat, but you’re not President Taft fat,’ Or, ‘You really think crap is a funnier word than feces?’”

And Nussbaum should know.

In Democratic circles, Nussbaum and his writing partners, Eric Schnure and Dan Gore, who also writes jokes for Conan O’Brien, are probably the most sought-after political humor writers (though Nussbaum and Schnure also write serious speeches). This silly season, for instance, all Democratic keynote addresses — from Sen. Dick Durbin’s (Ill.) speech at the Congressional Correspondents Dinner to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s routine at the Gridiron dinner — were written by them.

The “conservative comedy community” is smaller, says Mortman, and doesn’t have a similar “go-to” team for political japes. “We can be just as funny as the liberals,” he adds. Parvin, for instance, is certainly the most prominent humor writer for Republicans, though his primary business is serious speeches.

Ultimately, when it comes to Congressional quipping, caution is the catchword. Members, after all, must worry about alienating voters and funders. Political humor works best when it is self-critical — and avoids highly sensitive social topics, these writers say. Humor also has the added benefit of simultaneously allowing Members to “capture complicated thoughts and express them in simple” terms, says Hecox.

“The American people don’t want the president or their Senator or Congressman to necessarily be the funniest people in the world. They don’t want Robin Williams being the president,” says Franken. “All they want to know is that the person has a sense of humor about him or herself. You are not trying out to be a cast member of SNL.”

Preparations for Durbin’s Congressional Correspondents Dinner appearance in February entailed “asking Sen. Durbin if he was really willing to tell a joke about Illinois icon President Abraham Lincoln possibly being gay,” says Nussbaum.

The answer, he says, was no.

“We are a self-edited crowd,” says Sherman. “We have nasty things to say about other politicians and we hope desperately you never hear any of them.”

“The first rule of political humor is be self-deprecating,” says Katz. “The second rule is repeat as necessary.”

Often, Nussbaum says, a speech will start with a single theme and then grow from there. For instance, when Nussbaum and his partners were called on to write Daschle’s Gridiron speech in 2002, the then-Majority Leader was “getting pilloried for being obstructionist.” So they developed that theme into a three-minute riff on Daschle’s personal struggle to overcome his intransigent ways, AA-style. “It just got wackier and wackier,” he says.

Contrary to popular belief, however, humor isn’t an antidote for a scandalous imbroglio.

“A lot of politicians think humor can get them out of hot water,” says Parvin. “Every once in a while I receive a call from someone who maybe is in hot water and they think maybe a funny line will get them out and usually I tell them, ‘No, you really are in hot water and a funny line will only make you look flip.’”

What’s more, it can end up following you to your grave — literally.

“A good joke will last a week and a bad joke will be reprinted in their obituary,” Katz says.