Obama speechwriter David Litt on jokes the president can and can’t tell

How to write a joke for the President of the United States? How do you come up with something that looks perfectly sharp but not too cruel, silly but not silly? How not to denigrate the highest office in the country with – sniff – comedy?

They were all questions David Litt, a speechwriter for President Obama and one of the most important people for Obama’s comedic monologues at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, had to cope while working in the White House.

And after he left he wrote his memoirs Thank you, Obama: my hope, the changing years of the White House, an entire book on his working time for the president, with lots of tips on how to write jokes for the commander-in-chief.

Litt joined me for the most recent episode of my podcast, I think you are interesting, and I wanted to ask him questions not only about his book, but also about the process of writing a comedy for the most powerful person in the world. Is it possible to tell hard-hitting jokes – the comedy term for jokes that poke fun at those who are more powerful than the comedian – when the person making the joke is the president? And what kinds of jokes can not the president says?

Litt’s answers to these questions, slightly edited for length and clarity, follow.

Todd VanDerWerff

Most of your book is about your work in the Obama White House, but a lot of it is about writing comedy for the President, which seems like a very tricky needle to thread. Not even just Obama, but with any president, what’s a joke you can or can’t say with someone so powerful?

David Litt

There are two different questions there. First, what can’t you do because it’s inappropriate? The other is, what can’t you do because it’s just not funny if a president does? The most important thing about the president telling a joke is that it’s the president telling a joke. This is where most of the comedy comes from. That means the bar for what’s edgy, what’s out there, is a lot lower than if I were writing jokes for a comedian.

David Litt.
Ben Gabbe / Getty Images for The Moth

Different presidents have approached this issue in different ways. Ronald Reagan was very funny, but in a much more classic style, like “Let me tell you a story about a cow, a farmer, and a sheepdog” sort of thing. And he was telling good jokes like that. With President Obama, it certainly wasn’t that kind of story, setup, punchline jokes, but more like an observation, then a punchline.

To try to answer your question a little more succinctly, I think the number one topic that we wouldn’t joke about was national security. This was important to us because one of the things about writing jokes for a president is if you got the joke and it’s totally tasteful, but a week later something happened. happening – there is a tragedy, there is a shooting, there is a terrorist attack – the joke can retroactively become in bad taste. It was an important thing for us. We didn’t want anything to end up in a campaign ad, nor did we want to do anything insensitive and downsize the desktop.

The other thing was that it was important that the jokes were an extension of who President Obama was the rest of the time. One example is that every year I got jokes – and that was totally fine, because our goal was to do it all – about Chris Christie where the point of the joke was that he was a big guy. We just didn’t want to joke about someone’s physical appearance. We laughed at him for Bridgegate, for cutting off traffic and stuff, scandal and arrogance and stuff. It was a fair game.

But when President Obama laughed at Trump, which he did frequently, he didn’t make jokes on his hands or say, “Oh, he’s orange.” It was stuff that focused on who that person is politically and the choices they’ve made, rather than their physical appearance. It is a reflection of who President Obama is.

Todd VanDerWerff

There’s this theory in punch up versus punch down comedy – trying to make jokes about people who are either on the same level as you or who have more power than you. But the president, theoretically, has more power than anyone in the world, unless you’re joking about God; this is the only way to crack. So how do you find ways to tell these jokes without sounding mean?

David Litt

There were two approaches. One is, yes, the president, by definition, rarely shows up, in terms of just who has the most power. Who can order a drone strike on whom? The president will come out on top of this conversation most of the time.

I think self-mockery is a way to balance that out a bit. For example, usually in one of the President’s White House Correspondents‘ Dinner monologues, the first two jokes, and then all along we would sprinkle a few jokes where he made fun of himself. We have tried to make them as real as possible. They were legitimate jokes where he went out of his way, I think in part because he liked it and saw the value in it, but more than that, or on top of that, there was a feeling that it gives you the right then talk about people who really bother you a bit.

I think what we would have said is that we weren’t so much telling the truth. It was the understatement we used, but there was some truth to it.

In politics, you so rarely go back and forth, where you say something and then someone else says otherwise, and it doesn’t matter who’s right, it’s treated as a controversy or a debate rather than an argument. declaration. Jokes were a way around that.

For example, when President Obama laughed at something Mitch McConnell did, or Ted Cruz for having a big ego, I don’t think those are the times he hits. I wouldn’t say it hits, exactly, but it kind of lifts the lid on something everyone in Washington knows and thinks about, but we’re not allowed to say it because of DC conventions – or the less before Trump DC conventions.

Find out more with David Litt, about the strengths and limitations of political comedy, the joke he wrote for Obama and of which he is most proud, and the similarities between his job at the White House and his new gig at Funny or Die, listen to the entire episode.

To hear more interviews from fascinating people in the arts and culture world – from powerful showrunners and web series creators to documentary filmmakers – Check I think you are interesting archives.

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