President Barack Obama receives more than financial support from the entertainment industry. It also helps him to be funny.
A team of Obama’s past and present speechwriters worked with two professional joke writers to sharpen the president’s annual stand-up routine at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, according to a person familiar with the matter. The speechwriters collaborated with Nell Scovell, who has written episodes for “The Simpsons” on News Corp.’s Fox Network, and Kevin Bleyer, a writer for Comedy Central’s “Daily Show.”
Drafting a serious policy speech is a challenge. Writing jokes for the leader of the free world may be harder.
“It’s one thing to be funny in person,” said Reid Cherlin, a former Obama administration spokesman who is friends with many of the president’s speechwriters. “It’s another thing altogether to be funny, and appropriate, when you’re writing out jokes.”
“Watching them prepare for the White House Correspondents Dinner opened my eyes to just how hard it is to write jokes for someone else,” Cherlin said.
After an initial survey of potential jokes three weeks ago, the team began to cull potential one-liners for the April 28 dinner. They worked to stay current with the news cycle and on the right side of taste. The president weighed in a few times before signing off, while reserving the right to ad-lib, according to the person, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the internal deliberations.
The president’s audience included journalists, past and present elected officials, and Cabinet members, as well as movie stars. The jokes touched on subjects from his political opponents to the scandal over misconduct by the U.S. Secret Service, with a dose of self-deprecating humor thrown in.
The president’s staff involved with preparing for the dinner included speechwriters Jonathan Favreau, Cody Keenan and David Litt, the youngest of Obama’s scribes.
David Axelrod, who served in the White House and still consults for Obama’s campaign also offered advice, as did Jon Lovett, who wrote many of Obama’s science and technology speeches before leaving the West Wing to pitch sitcoms to Hollywood studios.
“Part of being able to write a good policy speech for the president, I think, is being able to channel his voice,” Cherlin said. “And it turns out that writing jokes for the president requires the same skill. You have to step out of your own sense of humor and into someone else’s.”