Speaking recently at the exclusive Gridiron Club dinner that doubles as a bipartisan comedy roast, President Obama delivered a jab at a Republican and seemed particularly happy with it, then waited for the laughter to die down before quipping: “This lame-duck stuff is fun.”
But seated a few feet away in the audience, Obama’s speechwriters were far more tense.
The president had the last word that evening, so their responsibilities throughout the night included scratching funny lines that other speakers used first. The assignment made for a roller-coaster dinner of frantic updates, edits and revisions to Obama’s remarks.
In the realm of presidential speechwriting, comedy routines like the one Obama will deliver at the annual White House Correspondents Assn. dinner Saturday don’t share the same import as a major policy address. But for those involved, the challenge of making sure the president comes off as funny is fraught with peril.
The correspondents dinner, or “nerd prom,” as it’s come to be known, has evolved from a small Washington ritual like the Gridiron or Alfalfa Club dinners to a nationally televised event, and brings with it higher stakes.
“You are expected to be funny,” said Jeff Nussbaum, a partner at the West Wing Writers speechwriting firm who’s often called on to help write politicians’ comedy speeches. “While members of Congress can still go to dinners similar to this and get credit if they’re moderately funny, a moderately funny president, unfortunately, is a disappointment.”
For the fourth time, Obama speechwriter David Litt is taking the lead on what he and a colleague call “the State of the Union address of jokes,” the longest and most high-profile speech of this sort Obama gives each year.
Preparation began about a month ago — not quite as early as for the State of the Union, though the process can feel just as involved.
“The same way we start out with 100 or so policy ideas and have to get them down to less than half of that [for the State of the Union], we start out with 100 or so jokes and have to get them down to about 20” for the correspondents dinner, said Cody Keenan, Obama’s top speechwriter and self-described “wet blanket” for the speech. His job is to say, “No, we can’t say that.”
Litt said he begins by jotting down ideas for jokes as they come to him, often while working on more formal speeches.
“We’re always looking for jokes that are only funny — or, at least, especially funny — if the person saying them is President Obama,” he said.
SOURCE: MICHAEL A. MEMOLI
Los Angeles Times