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The White House from a funny perspective

Former Clinton humorist Mark Katz chronicles the power players of an eventful presidency from a unique vantage point — a lone humorist embedded deep inside the chaotic West Wing.
/ Source: TODAY

When you provide the comic relief for the leader of the free world, the line between funny and weird can get a little blurry. Consider the extraordinary experiences of Mark Katz, the in-house humor writer of the Clinton White House, whose job was to produce the president’s comic response to the crisis du jour. For eight tumultuous years, he wrote Bill Clinton’s annual series of humorous speeches to the Washington press corps. Now the former White House funny man chronicles the triumphs, tribulations, and power players of an eventful presidency from a unique vantage point — a lone humorist embedded deep inside the chaotic West Wing in his book, "Clinton & Me: A Real Life Political Comedy." Here's an excerpt:

He opened the door and I jumped to my feet. Watching the president of the United States enter the room is always a startling sight. Of course, the sight he encountered might have caught him off-guard too: a nervous guy in a tuxedo, standing in a dimly lit holding room with a stack of pages in one hand and an egg timer in the other.

I had been waiting for him for nearly half an hour, deep inside the brass and mahogany Capitol Hilton, all alone but for a bowl of fruit that had been placed on a table by an aide. In the minutes before he arrived, I expended my nervous energy pretending to greet him with the salutation “Hey Prez!,” entertaining myself by practicing it aloud numerous times to the empty room. Its breeziness and brazen familiarity made me laugh each time, and I wondered if the purpose of our meeting gave me the liberty to say it.

We were there to rehearse a humor speech, after all. But as he entered the room, something about him made me lose my nerve.

“Good evening, sir!” I offered instead. The president nodded in my direction but offered no audible response. I was instantly deflated. I had been hoping for a warm, high five of a greeting. The last time I had seen him was seven months before, on a triumphant night at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. A photograph taken immediately after that speech — a pleased president towering over me as the first lady literally patted me on the back — evoked images from my bar mitzvah album. But on this night the only reason I assumed Bill Clinton even remembered me at all was that he didn’t look at me and immediately ask, “Who the hell are you?”

A few steps behind the president was the first lady, in a formal evening dress. Her greeting was silent — not even a nod. Mrs. Clinton posted herself near the door and deliberately outside of our conversation, waiting for whatever this meeting was to be over.

I hoped my unilateral enthusiasm might at least jump-start some jocularity. I held up the prop in my hand. “You know, Josh King had to go to three different stores to get an egg timer with a dial. Evidently egg timers have gone digital.” I thought I might engage him by recounting the lengths the advance staff had gone to in procuring the speech’s central prop, but he was not amused.

Perhaps I had failed to consider that the seven months since we’d last met might have dampened his mood. That summer, the Clinton health care plan had gone down in flames, the midterm elections in the fall had rebuked him severely and with the new year came the cringe-inducing reality of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his Contract-with-America Congress. In January 1995, a presidency that had started with such promise seemed halfway toward ending with one failed term. Maybe that’s why this was not shaping up to be a “Hey Prez!” kind of a meeting.

Although this was the fifth humor speech I’d written for Clinton since he’d taken office, we were having our very first one-on-one conversation. The occasion was a speech he was about to give that night to the Alfalfa Club, the least known of the four annual

Washington humor dinners that take place from January through April — collectively known as the “Silly Season.” I was there in my capacity as presidential joke writer, an adjunct member of the White House speechwriting staff on retainer by way of the Democratic National Committee. Normally, a meeting with the president is attended by the maximum number of aides who can lobby their way into the room. But on this snowy Saturday of Super Bowl weekend, every White House speechwriter and communications

aide was eager to have the night off. The Alfalfa Dinner came four days after the State of the Union address, the Super Bowl of presidential orations and the culmination of an exhausting process that began in the previous calendar year.

The president would have preferred to take the night off as well. His dislike for the Alfalfa Club was common knowledge among his schedulers. Unlike the other annual humor dinners, the Alfalfa Club is attended not by the press but by a fraternity of

corporate CEOs, federal power brokers and other establishment stalwarts all gathered for an event that could easily double as the Winter Ball of the Trilateral Commission. Clinton regarded its members as the fat cats who had voted against him once and couldn’t wait to do it again. I had heard repeated reports of the effort required to convince him to attend. The long history of presidents who had made the eight-block trip from the White House to the Capitol Hilton was not sufficient to make the case; this year, it had taken a personal plea from Clinton’s close friend and Alfalfa Club member Vernon Jordan for him to RSVP.

Abandoned by his staff, the president was stuck in a place he did not want to be, holding in his hands a draft of a speech now covered with his cross-outs and scribbles. His first full sentence to me in the holding room torpedoed the speech’s very premise: “You can put that egg timer away.”

The egg timer, as you’ve waited patiently to learn, was the comic answer to that week’s weekly crisis. It was born in the aftermath of the State of the Union Address, otherwise known as “SOTU,” the acronym written on the thousands of drafts and memos that helped create it. Clinton’s first two SOTUs were widely regarded as far too long. This, his third, was his longest yet.

The speech was clocked at one hour and twenty-one minutes, a fact pundits were using as a metaphor for an undisciplined, flailing presidency. In the news cycles that followed the State of the Union, everyone from David Brinkley to David Letterman had something to say about its oppressive length.

As far as I was concerned, this “disaster” might as well have been hatched in heaven itself. Suddenly the largely overlooked Alfalfa speech had a reason to be relevant. Prior to that speech, my draft had been a mishmash of jokes on the prevalent, if familiar, topics of the day: the new Republican 105th Congress and its Contract with America, the ascent of Gingrich and the questionable details of his $4.5 million book deal and the GOP’s assault on the Public Broadcasting System. Less seismic topics included a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court’s chief justice, whose latest opinion held that the robe of the highest-ranking justice ought to be adorned with decorative stripes — judicial activism at its silliest.

From the Friday I arrived at the White House right up to the State of the Union, I had assembled a growing list of jokes on those subjects. With the speechwriting and communications staff crunching on the State of the Union, I was all but left alone in a

temporarily vacant office in the Old Executive Office Building to assemble a draft. I spent my days at my laptop and on the phone, trading jokes with friends and reliable joke writers eager to pitch in. By Wednesday, the list included these:

I see Chief Justice Rehnquist is here. He’s the one wearing the tux with the tasteful gold stripes.

You know these are strange days on Capitol Hill when the Republicans are playing good cop/bad cop — and Bob Dole is the good cop. I think history will show that I’ve had the best relationship with Congress of any southern president since Jefferson Davis.

Dick Armey and Phil Gramm both taught economics. Evidently,they taught it to each other.

Ronald Reagan. George Murphy. Fred Grandy. Fred Thompson. Sonny Bono. Don’t any good actors become Republicans? But the SOTU rearranged the humor landscape. The consensus molded in the post-speech punditry of Tuesday night had been set in the kiln of the next day’s news. Of all the facts crammed into the SOTU, only one resonated by Wednesday morning: the president’s speech had been far too long. Yet the White House refused to concede that characterization. Every authorized spokesperson in the building was quick to point out that overnight polling revealed that approval ratings of the speech

had come in at 83 percent.

That detail, while true and even interesting, did not strike me as a strong premise for humor. But a guy about to give a speech as he was still being mocked for the length of his last speech — now that seemed fertile with comic potential! As the president’s joke writer, my job was to mine this premise in a way that would allow the president to score points with the room. As the most obvious solution, the egg timer joke presented itself first. It was a simple idea made funnier by juxtaposing a kitschy kitchen device with a

presidential podium brimming with gravitas.

By Thursday morning, the egg timer had been fleshed out into the speech’s opening and running joke. The stage direction of the draft instructed the president to approach the podium, pull the egg timer from his pocket, set it to five minutes and greet the audience.

That was sure to start the room laughing while also setting up a better joke to come: once the timer expired, he was to add as many minutes as he wanted, as often as he wanted. (Not only did Josh King really have to go to three stores to find an analog egg timer, but he also returned with extras so we could choose the one with the most resonant and comic bell. Advance staffers — especially good ones like Josh — are as detail-oriented as plutonium-licensed nuclear physicists.)

I had no doubt that the egg timer gag would deliver a strong laugh to start his remarks before a word was spoken — except that in the only rehearsal of an imminent speech, this particular egg imer had just been excised by a presidential executive order.

“No egg timer?” I asked. His mood notwithstanding, I hoped he was joking. “The egg timer’s a joke on my State of the Union, right?” He seemed only about 83 percent sure.

“Yes it is,” I said, choosing to ignore for the moment what else he might think the egg timer could possibly refer to.

Before responding, the president diverted his attention to the bowl of fruit placed there for him by advance staffers. As he poked through the red grapes and green apples and dried figs, he seemed as pleased with the selection as he was with the egg timer.

“Well, forget it,” he said, still rifling through the bowl. “They’ve been on me for four days straight about that speech.” His hand dug deeper into the bowl to bring up the contents from the bottom, but there he found only more of the same. Not only was the

president cranky about his speech, he was hungry for a snack — and neither I nor the bowl was giving him what he wanted. What he wanted was for me and my speech to go away, and to find something else in that bowl besides fruit. Something with protein.

Something more like a chicken parm sandwich. Done with the bowl, he returned his attention to me. His eyes narrowed and his lower jaw became jutted and tight. “Eighty-three percent of the American people thought I gave a helluva speech. Only here inside the bubble did the reporters have trouble sitting still for more than twenty-five minutes.”

He was making a substantive political argument to his joke writer — which I appreciated, I guess. But I had a hard time imagining how to fold that fact into the speech. More to the point, at this moment in his presidency the benefits of self-deprecating humor were not evident to him. Alone in a room with an angry president, abandoned by the aides skilled at negotiating his moods and poorer instincts, I was left on my own to make the case.

Excerpted from “Clinton & Me: A Real Life Political Comedy” by Mark Katz. Copyright © 2004 by Mark Katz. Published by Miramax books, a division of Hyperion. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.